Class Acts , continued

Danny Gerber (left), director of the Urban Nutrition Initiative, and Jim Mitchell C’60 get help from second-graders Xavier and Emmanuel finishing a flower bed at Drew Elementary School. Heather Kilmer, Civic House associate director, and Tiffaney plant flowers. Photography by Addison Geary.


    More than half of the adults in the United States participates in volunteer work, according to a national poll, and this trend is reflected in the alumni programming of many universities, including Penn. Through projects like the one described above and a community-service program called PennCares, organized through the University’s regional alumni clubs, alumni are creating new ways to stay involved with their alma mater.
    When attorney Joel Nied C’90 moved to Philadelphia three years ago to take a job at a local law firm, he wrote to Dr. Ira Harkavy C’70 Gr’79, the director of Penn’s Center for Community Partnerships, to find out if he could get involved as an alumnus in the center’s activities. He had read an article in the Gazette [“The West Philadelphia Story,” November 1997] about the University’s renewed interest in West Philadelphia and decided he’d like to be a part of creating positive urban change. “My name found its way over to Alumni Relations,” he recalls. “The next thing I know, I was in charge of a nationwide community-service project.”
    The undertaking, now known as PennCares, was the inspiration of Elsie Sterling Howard CW’68, former president of the University of Pennsylvania Alumni Society. Howard says she had noticed “a big hole in our alumni programming,” in that the University had not been helping recent graduates who were interested in making their communities better places to live fit volunteer work into their busy lives.
    Nied began contacting regional club presidents and non-Penn-affiliated community-service organizations throughout the country to consider their options. “We started with what would be impossible. Then we narrowed it down to what was at least conceivable.” They decided to promote a series of one-day volunteer events over a two-month period each spring, hoping that as alumni talked to their friends around the country, the enthusiasm of one club would encourage other clubs to join in. This spring, the program ran in 14 cities.
    The details have largely been left up to the discretion of the individual groups. Boston’s club has held carnivals for underprivileged kids. Los Angeles-area alumni painted a gloomy construction barrier around City Hall one spring, and each year return to a local library to help children prepare full-costume dramatic skits based on stories they read. Atlanta graduates cleaned up a local park one year and, more recently, did repairs on elderly people’s homes.
    Hundreds of alumni have given their time to PennCares projects. “One of the exciting things about it,” Nied says, “is that not only are we helping our respective communities, but we’re helping the University. It helps people get in touch
with Penn and bond with it in a way that may not traditionally have existed.” (Nied and two members of the Alumni Relations staff, Ellen Liebman C’93 and Jennifer Rizzi C’93, received awards through Penn’s Models of Excellence program for their work setting up PennCares.)

    The community-service projects are open to all alumni, not just dues-paying members of the various regional clubs. “People who have never been to a Penn event come to these things and have such a great experience,” adds Courtney Spikes C’92, who until recently organized community service for the Southern California Alumni Club.
    Currents, the magazine published by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, noted in a recent article that a growing number of alumni organizations are adding community-service projects to their roster of more traditional social events. It cited examples from the University of Michigan, Clark University and the College of William & Mary, among others. The alumni effort coincides with a movement at Penn and many other universities to create or expand upon public-service programs in their curriculums and add community-focused centers to their campuses:

Tufts University received a $10 million grant from the founder of e-Bay, an alumnus, to launch its own College of Citizenship and Public Service.
The Class of 1955 at Princeton University—inspired by a challenge from alumnus and civic activist Ralph Nader—
established the Project 55 Public Interest Program, which has so far placed almost 700 students in fellowships or internships geared toward public-service careers.
Students who live in one dorm at western Maryland’s Frostburg State University earn $1,600 each in scholarships for completing 450 hours of community service and training.
Civic House, which serves as a community-service hub at Penn, opened its doors on Locust Walk two years ago with the goal of “preparing students for their roles as citizens and leaders.” It will get some help with that objective from the Class of 1960, which, in addition to organizing the community-service day for Alumni Weekend, raised $1.15 million. Some donors have specified how their gifts must be used; of the rest, half will go to Civic House programs, the other half to scholarships for Penn students interested in community service.

    To some extent, this interest in community involvement has trickled down from the creation of national programs like AmeriCorps, says David Grossman, director of Civic House. “Alumni now have come of age at a time when civic engagement looks different than going to the Lions or Rotary clubs, or writing a check. It’s hands-on engagement.” Since the 1980s, he adds, “Students coming to Penn have had hands-on experience in high school, and have had the opportunity to experience it at Penn [where they can choose from dozens of service-learning courses across multiple disciplines],” so it’s not unusual for them to want to continue with community-service projects after graduation.

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