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Student volunteers find satisfaction
in reaching out to others
(April 19, 1999)

hen Alex Rosario goes back to the south side of Hartford each week to tutor youngsters at Kinsella Elementary School, he's about a block from his old high school. It's a tough neighborhood, but Rosario sees opportunity. "I can really relate to these kids, plus it's a chance to give back to the community," he says.

Working with kids who already know too much about drugs and gangs, he wants them to see that they can make positive choices about their futures. "A lot of kids don't see people like myself," he adds. A senior this year, he agrees that coming from such a neighborhood, he could have made the wrong choices himself and never gotten to college.

Rosario is one of a growing number of UConn students who volunteer through the Center for Community Outreach - tutoring and mentoring young people, as well as working with the elderly, the disabled, the homeless and others in the community. "I see such compassion and commitment from these students," says coordinator Diane Wright, who hopes even more will get involved.

Her idea of community is something that's "reciprocal and mutually beneficial. It asks you to share yourself - who you are, your time, your energy, your skills. In exchange, you learn a tremendous amount, see things differently.

Sometimes, I really think you gain far more than you give."

Michelle Sevigny agrees. Volunteering has been part of her life for years. During high school in Windsor Locks, she and friends started a volunteer service club that eventually was sponsored by the local Lions Club. Now a sophomore, she has tutored at two different Hartford schools since coming to UConn. "I honestly feel that I get more from the program than I could possibly ever give," she says. "It's amazing. Volunteering is worth every minute that you've got."

Wright was asked to establish the office in 1994, based on her assessment of community and University needs. Since then, she has steadily expanded the job bank of volunteer opportunities that students can get involved in. "I think we all have talents and skills to offer," she points out. "It's a matter of finding what we feel comfortable doing - what excites us, turns us on.

We hope that students will develop a lifelong ethic based on the idea that it's important to contribute."

With few opportunities within walking distance of campus in this rural area, students are vanned to program sites. "We try to structure activities so that groups can go at the same time," Wright says, noting a mentoring program at the Windham Middle School that began earlier this semester. "They asked us to help because a lot of the new kids in the school feel intimidated and out of place." With carte blanche to set up a schedule, UConn sends volunteers five days a week to work with the fifth-graders during their last class period.

Wright is passionate about mentoring, an activity that is also very popular with students. "So many young people don't get enough attention in their lives. They need someone to take an interest in them, to give them some self-esteem." She herself is involved - as a Big Sister to a 161/2-year-old girl in Willimantic. "I have to say the half, you know," Wright adds, smiling.

"One of the reasons I love what I'm doing is it's really part of me," she says. Wright has been part of her little sister's extended family for six years. "I think it's one of the most meaningful things I've done, and why I believe in the power of direct service. This is where someone can really feel they are making an impact. I've gone through a lot of different stages with her. It's been rewarding, it's been heart wrenching. And it's really touched my life."

That's a response heard, with variations, time and again. This year, as one of the office's 15 site coordinators, UConn senior Monica Doshi is running the entire volunteer effort at the low- income Windham Heights housing project in Willimantic. Another long-time community volunteer, she has had the extraordinary experience of spending seven weeks working with toddlers at Mother Theresa's orphanage in Calcutta, India. "I love working with kids. I just think it's very important," she says simply.

At Windham Heights, Doshi coordinates a program four days a week, for 29 youngsters ranging in age from six to 13. With the help of 40-odd volunteers, they provide academic tutoring, multicultural learning experiences, and on-going mentoring. For Doshi, who grew up in comfortable circumstances in Waterbury and in Bethlehem, Pa., there is satisfaction in the doing, plus exposure to a new environment. "Growing up as I did, I wouldn't know what these youngsters' lives are like if I didn't take the initiative to get involved."

Sevigny seconds that sentiment. Working under a grant from the Center for Community Outrach, Sevigny is developing a new program that will bring volunteers into St. Francis Hospital in Hartford to read stories to sick children. "Volunteering is the most rewarding thing that you could possibly get involved in," she says fervently. "I think that any minute that you can give is a minute that can change a child's life, or anyone else's."

Janet Barrett