FAIRFIELD—Dozens of Sacred Heart University students returned a week before the spring semester began to help organize donations at the St. John’s Family Center in Bridgeport. They stocked canned goods and sorted through winter clothes for adults and children throughout the city.
This was just one of many activities for student volunteers who participated in SHU’s 19th annual CURTIS Week. The program is named after SHU’s founder, the late Bishop Walter W. Curtis, whose last name forms an acronym for Community Understanding and Reflection Through Inner-city Service. The week also included other means of engagement and immersion in Bridgeport, enabling students to experience the urban issues of poverty, racism and immigration firsthand.
“It’s nice to come back a week early and give back to those who might not be as fortunate,” said Joey Leo, a junior studying sports management who was one of the student leaders for the week. “It’s nice to give back instead of just receiving. You can take a lot from this—you get a new outlook moving forward.”
The 19 students involved in the local mission stayed at Mary Immaculate Convent in Bridgeport. Every day, the students split into two groups and volunteered at nonprofit organizations and schools, one each morning and one each afternoon. At night, they visited various congregations throughout the state and discussed social justice issues.
On the day they worked at St. John’s, they headed to a Buddhist meditation center in New Haven after dinner. “This week encompasses both action and reflection—students come away shaped by the experience of engaging with community members and their peers, as well as meditation on their own faith journey, who they are and what they are called to do within their community,” said Anne Wendel, assistant director of the Office of Volunteer Programs and Service Learning. “They are challenged to confront stereotypes, build relationships and understand the community in which they live.”
Wendel, who stayed with the group during the week, said CURTIS Week “embodies the university’s mission, with its emphasis on faith, community service and recognition of the dignity and worth of every human being. As students engage in service during the day and visit centers of different religious traditions in the evening, they are able to personally connect to this relationship between faith and service.”
Hurricane Relief in Houston
While some students participated in CURTIS Week locally, others volunteered their time in Texas and in Jamaica. Fifteen students and three faculty and staff advisers went to Houston for a week, making SHU one of the only New England colleges to send volunteers to help with Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. The group stayed at a Cathedral Church in Beaumont, Texas, and each day went to different work sites or homes that had major flood damage.
“We were doing a lot of prep work for the houses,” said sophomore Cassie Simonides, a biology major who was a student-leader on the trip. She said groups would go into houses and cut out the damaged dry wall and insulation. They ripped up rugs, moved furniture and removed anything that was waterlogged.
“This was the first time I did a disaster relief trip,” Simonides said. “This really hit home, because something like this can happen to anyone at any time. Everyday people were affected by this, and there was nothing they could do about it.”
Senior Logan Cook, an exercise science major, was also a student leader in Houston. He said the homeowners often were onsite. “They were very grateful and very resilient. They were open to telling their stories and were grateful we were spending our winter break helping,” Cook said.
Both Cook and Simonides said big takeaways from the trip were that no one is immune to disaster, and helping someone, no matter how big or small the task, has an impact.
Caring for Disabled Jamaicans
Through Campus Ministry, 12 students and four adult leaders went to Kingston, Jamaica, for a mission and service trip. They worked with an organization called Mustard Seed Communities (MSC), which is dedicated to helping people with disabilities.
“This opportunity was both eye-opening and life-changing,” said sophomore Chris Quigley. “Throughout the course of the week, we worked with MSC, which houses and cares for the most vulnerable people in Jamaica—both the youth and elderly. Our days consisted of spending quality time and giving loving care to the residents of MSC.”
The student volunteers read to residents, helped them during meals or took them on strolls around the property. “Our presence alone truly made a positive and lifelong impact on the residents, as well as the community,” Quigley said.
The group took away a lot from the trip, according to senior Anna Leone. “But I think what stood out most was the simplicity of the residents’ day-to-day lives,” Leone said. “Having close to nothing and being overjoyed with what little they have really puts into perspective for us what we actually need to be happy in our own lives.”
Sophomore Erin Rederscheid said, “It is important to understand that you truly don’t know what people are going through on a daily basis, and showing compassion to everyone you encounter can be the thing that puts a smile on their faces that day. Love really can go a long way in this world today, and that was really evident on this trip.”