For 10 years Barnard’s Reach Out program (BRO) has given incoming students a chance to experience their community firsthand by giving back. Each fall, students participate in daylong community service projects that range from bagging excess produce in Union Square to delivering Rosh Hashanah care packages to elderly Harlem residents. The program’s success has led to some exciting changes: Reach Out now occurs four times each school year instead of one, and enthusiastic students are now given the opportunity to take on leadership roles.
This year Barnard alumnae were invited to join students, faculty, and staff for the first time; their response was overwhelming. The 16 volunteer positions filled quickly; alumnae joined 150 new students in 11 projects throughout the city. “There is no better way for alumnae to get a sense of the College today than to be in conversation with current students,” says Dorothy Denburg, vice president for College Relations. “And it’s so much easier for alumnae and students to have genuine conversations when they’re doing something together that provides common ground.”
Reach Out’s organizers hope that incoming students and alumnae will benefit from working together and will share their college and post-college experiences. The program’s main purpose, however, is to instill the values of community service. “Reach Out encourages service early on, and we hope students continue to do so throughout their time at Barnard,” says Valerie Chow, Reach Out’s organizational wizard and director of the Internship and Civic Engagement Program. “Reach Out is a great opportunity for students to see parts of the city that they haven’t explored, to work with an organization with which they’re not yet familiar, and to learn the needs of the community,” says Chow. If you didn’t get to participate this year, there will be opportunities in the future. Until then, here’s a look at several of this year’s projects.
Thirty-one Barnard volunteers—including one faculty member, two alumnae, three student leaders, and 25 first-year students—partnered with the Lower East Side Ecology Center for a day of weeding, collecting trash, and spreading mulch in the East River Park.
“At the start of the day the park was a forest of weeds, and by the time we were finished it was quite beautiful,” said Severin Fowles, assistant professor of archaeology and the project’s faculty leader. “There is something very satisfying about that transformation.”
The group’s commitment to their task was tested when rain began to pour down in the middle of the day. Nonetheless, the group pushed ahead to finish what they had started. Their hard work did not go unnoticed. As the soaking-wet group ate lunch, a community member who visits the park frequently came by and thanked them for their service.
“I was so impressed with the caliber of incoming students,” says Hope Clements ’97. “As we were weeding, a lot of the students asked for advice. It was a nice opportunity for me to look back and think about what I wish I had known when I was entering Barnard.”
Every week New Yorkers flock to the Union Square Greenmarket to shop for fresh produce. Thirteen Barnard women worked during Reach Out to connect less fortunate New Yorkers with the excess produce left after closing time. The project involved partnering with City Harvest, a nonprofit organization that collects food donated by farmers and distributes it to shelters in all five boroughs. Together the group bagged and loaded 6,000 pounds of food.
“It made me proud to see strong, beautiful Barnard women carrying huge bags of corn, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, and tomatoes to the City Harvest truck for loading,” says Vivian Taylor, chief of staff and vice president for community development, who served as leader.
“A lot of the farmers told us how impressed they were with this group of 18-year-olds,” says Yona Corn ’08, the site’s alumna leader. “I want Barnard to be as great as I remember it. Engaging with this group of women, who were willing to take three hours out of their Saturday for no other purpose than to help others, affirmed that the Barnard legacy carries on.”
The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine hosts a soup kitchen every Sunday and it was bustling with activity when 16 Barnard women showed up to serve hot meals and welcome guests. That this Reach Out happened to coincide with the 10th anniversary of 9/11, made the experience more meaningful for many participants. “It was really gratifying to feed hungry people on this memorable day, and to connect with people who had lived through that event,” says Murrill Oakes ’13, student leader for the project and a Barnard Civic Engagement Fellow.
To Oakes, Reach Out is important because “it’s easy for students to come to Barnard and fall in love with the campus community,” she says. “but if you don’t branch out, you’re not experiencing New York and you’re not getting to know the people who share this city with you.”
Valerie Chow and Heather Godfrey ’01 worked with the students. “It was such a great way for me to connect with today’s Barnard, and to feel again the excitement of starting a new school year, which is something I miss every fall,” says Godfrey.
Ten volunteers gave back to the larger New York City community closer to home. The Kraft Clothing Pantry, which offers clothing to homeless and low-income families throughout the year, is a longtime favorite community service site for Barnard and Columbia students. Jenny Goldstein ’05, the site’s alumnae leader, was once one of those students—and she was impressed by the young women with whom she spent the day. “They had such high aspirations,” she says. “It was great to connect with this new, motivated and passionate generation of women coming through Barnard.”
The clothing pantry is university-run, so donations pile up during the summer when students and faculty are away. This left the group with an excess of clothes to sort, organize, and bag for distribution.
“At the end of the day it was really satisfying to look at everything we had done,” says Helenka Lepkowski Ostrum ’14, student leader at the project. “It made me feel good to know people who needed these clothes were actually going to use them. We knew we were helping make a social impact.”
Another team spread across the Upper West Side and west Harlem to deliver Rosh Hashanah care packages to elderly residents’ homes. Thirty-two volunteers worked with DOROT, a nonprofit organization that aims to alleviate social isolation among the elderly and provides services to help them live independently.
Nancy J. Schneider ’74 and two first-year students brought a care package to an elderly woman in Harlem. “The woman we visited loved visitors, and we were able to do something valuable for her in that moment by providing company and distracting her from her worries,” says Schneider.
The woman’s anxiety was largely centered on her health-care situation: Her home health aide’s hours had been cut back and she was unsure how she would do her shopping. “I think it was eye-opening for the students to hear about her problems firsthand,” offers Schneider. “We all wished that we could do more, but I think this experience provided an important lesson about how government cutbacks can really hurt people.”