Adapting to pandemic conditions, William & Mary’s Office of Community Engagement has transformed its ongoing programs to continue reaching out.
The department’s new GivePulse platform is offering students and community members ways to connect with service opportunities, and the Presidential Call to Service Council is spending this academic year exploring what service expansion could look like in the future, according to Director of the Office of Community Engagement Melody Porter.
One of several new initiatives is happening with Lafayette Kids, which pairs W&M students (“Bigs”) with local young people (“Littles”) for youth development, forming a partnership with the Williamsburg Housing and Redevelopment Authority to offer Buddy Boxes. It’s a subscription-type program customized for each youth participant to support learning and connection, with their assigned W&M student putting together activity boxes and writing pen pal-type letters to them.
Delivering the boxes to local youngsters’ homes in the fall left enduring images with Joy Jackson, coordinator of education programs and youth development.
“We made phone calls in December and said we’re going to be there in a half hour or so,” Jackson said. “This one little girl was waiting outside for the box. Oh! And when she saw me pull up, she was jumping up and down, and she got the box and she was just so excited.”
W&M students had settled on the Buddy Boxes after doing games and activities online with students to emphasize play, but then realizing everybody was already spending too much time online.
“So they said it would be a really great idea for us to try to build these relationships by setting up pen pals,” Jackson said. “But then also each month they curate a box for their ‘little’ based off of their young person’s interests. So if they are interested in art, then they will look for some items that they can send them around art. And then they will also have things to talk about in their letter as they’re going back and forth.
“So they really just wanted to build the relationship because it was a new community. But also to let them be kids.”
W&M students will continue to deliver boxes this semester, with their training including receiving their own customized boxes.
“Everything we do when we’re doing training is to simulate the experience,” Jackson said. “So the leadership team actually did little bags curated for each one of our volunteers, specifically for them so that they could feel really cared for. They were items that spoke to their personality and those interests — so that they had that feeling and then they’re able to say this is the feeling that I want the students to have.”
Connected through reading
Also new this academic year are Action Book Clubs, which are virtual communities allowing readers to connect to learn about social issues and engage in critical reflection and civic action, according to Porter. Fall semester ABCs focused on disability experiences and veteran experiences.
Fall discussions were held around Haben Girma’s 2020 McSwain-Walker Lecture, episodes of the Disability Visibility podcast, interviews from the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project and the PBS documentary “Bad Voodoo's War.” This spring, offerings will be expanded to include ABCs focused on housing segregation, episodes of “Star Trek” and One Book One Community read “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.
“What I love most about the two book clubs I facilitated in the fall is that they were centered on lived experiences,” said Elizabeth Miller, associate director of the Office of Community Engagement. “Most of our readings were authored by veterans or disabled people. And then in our conversations, we were able to share our own experiences, assumptions and questions.
“For me, the Action Book Clubs are a great example of W&M belonging and curiosity working together for better learning.”
Griffin School Partnerships student volunteers in partnership with the School of Education continue to offer support to Williamsburg-James City County Schools students doing virtual learning through the Virtual Learning Partner Program.
Williamsburg Engagement is continuing to offer in-person service outdoors and within walking/biking distance, according to Porter. It will offer Service Saturdays and opportunities during at least one of the spring break days this semester to partners that can allow for outdoor, physically distanced service.
“These are the only in-person opportunities we have happening now, so they are all the more important as ways for students and community to connect,” Porter said.
Branch Out has shifted to completely remote alternative breaks, incorporating more advocacy and fundraising for partners than before.
The Office of Community Engagement has hosted a series of video calls for community partners to learn more about their current situations and needs and to facilitate networking and resource-sharing, Porter said. They’ve also joined calls with community partners hosted by other organizations, including the Williamsburg Health Foundation's COVID-19 community collaborations and the United Way.
“Since typical in-person service and engagement isn't easy, we've shifted some energy to ensuring that we continue offering educational and advocacy opportunities,” Porter said. “We offered two sections of a community engagement course remote/synchronous in the fall, and will offer another remote/synchronous course this spring.
“We continue having Community Discussions with guest speakers from community, via video call, several times per semester. This February we'll be putting out a campaign focused on advocacy opportunities and encouraging people to remember that ‘justice is what love looks like in public,’ with credit for the quote going to Cornel West.”
GivePulse, W&M’s campus platform for community engagement, is being expanded.
“As we build out the system, W&M students will be able to find service opportunities and community-based internships all in one place,” Porter said. “GivePulse allows individual students to track their individual impact and helps William & Mary better understand our collective community impact so we can better focus our efforts for supporting community-driven change.”
Future plans include enabling faculty who use community-engaged learning in their courses to be able to use GivePulse to connect with community opportunities, facilitate reflective journaling and track impacts. Community members will also be able to use GivePulse to find and connect with on-campus resources, including the various clinics offered through the Law School and School of Education. And community organizations could use the platform to manage all of their volunteer systems, including those volunteers not connected to W&M, at no cost to them, according to Porter.
Call to service
The Presidential Call to Service Council, chaired by Porter, has been meeting since August. It was formed at President Katherine A. Rowe’s direction as a continuation of the Path Forward Calls to Service work over the summer.
The council is focused on developing approaches to fulfill its three-fold charge: deepening and expanding partnerships, elevating the profile and reach of community engagement and service, and supporting fundraising efforts, according to Porter.
The group is collecting information on all engaged-learning courses currently offered at W&M to be housed on GivePulse, as well as details about community-engaged research, student groups that have community partnerships and resources that are available at W&M for the greater community. It’s also supporting an expanded emphasis on community-engaged scholarship in the Charles Center's upcoming 2021 W&M Undergraduate Research Month in April, as well as other ways to highlight community-engaged teaching, and developing plans for regular connection between community members, partners, and W&M employees and students to allow for information and resource sharing.
“OCE's leadership in convening the President's Call to Service Council continues the work of bringing faculty, staff and students across schools, departments and the campus to clarify and define together values and practices for engaging communities meaningfully,” said Monica Griffin, director of engaged scholarship and the Sharpe Community Scholars Program, who is on the council.
“More importantly, this work spearheads an effort to invite and galvanize an expanded, more inclusive set of voices, experiences and vantage points from which to understand and support ongoing engagement by the university with communities.”