One chilly afternoon toward the end of Sacred Heart University’s winter break, six students were preparing lunch at the Thomas Merton Center in Bridgeport for a group of about 200 people in need. They worked in the Merton Center’s kitchen amidst the aromas of glazed cranberry chicken and roasted cauliflower. They donned hairnets and helped the chef, Sr. Mandy Carrier, prepare food. Dirty pots and pans disappeared quickly once the volunteers got hold of them, and when lunch came to an end, students swept, cleaned counters and finished the dishes before mopping the dining room floor and cleaning tables.
These were just a few of the SHU students who participated in CURTIS Week, an annual program that immerses and engages Pioneers in community projects throughout Bridgeport. The program bears the name of SHU’s founder, Bishop Walter W. Curtis, converted to an acronym for Community Understanding and Reflection Through Inner-city Service. Another 10 nonprofits and schools throughout Bridgeport benefited from the CURTIS Week program.
Pioneers involved in local CURTIS Week projects stayed at Hall Neighborhood House. Each day, they went to a different nonprofit organization to volunteer, and at night they visited various local congregations and discussed social issues.
“I like doing community service,” said Kaitlyn Pellerin, a freshman nursing major, who was busy washing and drying dishes at the Merton Center. Pellerin said participating in CURTIS Week enabled her to visit nonprofit organizations in Bridgeport and learn about additional volunteer opportunities for the future.
“This is an important experience for students to volunteer and meet people,” said Carrier, who is one of nine full-time staff members at the center. She said the center thrives on volunteerism and would not be able to serve 7,500 meals a month without it. “There’s a huge need in the community for what we do.”
Carrier said SHU students have always been good volunteers. “They always have their hearts and heads in the right place. They’re eager to help and want to get involved,” she said.
In addition to the service projects, CURTIS week also focuses on cultural and interfaith exchange. Along with Sunday Mass, the group visited a Buddhist meditation center, a local synagogue, a mosque and a Baptist church service in a predominantly African-American community. Junior Jacqueline Krebs, who served as CURTIS Week student leader this year, has participated in many CURTIS Week service projects throughout her years at SHU. She said she loves the experiences and helping the community, but visiting the various congregations is also an eye-opening experience. “You start to understand the people you see and you reflect on why we do this,” said Krebs, who is studying occupational therapy.
Andrea Canuel, assistant director of Volunteer Programs & Service Learning, said CURTIS Week is a unique undertaking that ties religious and cultural diversity with service projects. Students experience different environments and get to know people with whom they would not normally interact. “They’re getting out of their comfort zones and into a cultural experience,” she said.
While some students volunteered locally over winter break, another group of SHU students was sent to the Gulf Coast to help a family in need. Canuel joined the 19 students who worked with the George/Greene Habitat for Humanity in Lucedale, Miss. She said the students and three advisers worked on a house that will become home to a disabled veteran, his wife and their two small children.
“We put shingles on the entire roof, sided the house and put up soffit panels on the entire underside of the roof outside,” said Danielle Dy, a junior majoring in exercise science who is vice-president of SHU’s Habitat for Humanity chapter.
Dy and Canuel both said the trip was unlike other Habitat trips, because they constantly worked with the family. Canuel said volunteers typically meet the future homeowners, but do not work with them. “The mom was onsite every day,” Canuel said. “It was the sweetest family, and when the group was ready to leave, the children gave everyone handmade thank-you cards. Having the family involved made it an overwhelmingly positive experience.”
By the end of the trip, Dy, who has participated in Habitat trips for three years, said the group was like family. “A big take-away for me was to see a group of millennials put aside their electronic devices for a week to come together and help complete strangers.”
To view additional photos of how students spent their winter break, click here