by Brenna McBride
This trend isn’t isolated to Haverford alone. Across the country, from the least populous liberal arts schools to the largest research universities, civic-minded students are dedicating their time to their communities, often under the auspices of a comprehensive volunteer program like Haverford’s Eighth Dimension. Members of Haverford’s administration and faculty are awed and impressed by this generation’s volunteer spirit, especially in comparison to their own college days.
Delsie Phillips, director of admission, did her share of service as a student at Clark University in the late ’60s and early ’70s. She read for a blind student, worked with children at a community center, assisted mentally retarded adults, and helped out at a campus radio station during its transition into a public/community service radio station. But, she says, she and her fellow students did not have much free time to devote to volunteering. Many held part-time jobs to pay for their education, and any spare time was devoted to political activities such as protesting the Vietnam War. She did, however, witness a general rejection of material values among her friends and acquaintances. “Many students of means cast aside what their parents had given them to teach or work for the Peace Corps,” she says.
In her years at Haverford, Phillips has seen a steady commitment to service
from the students who have passed through her office. “Each generation
has its own style,” she explains, “but even throughout its
peaks and valleys, student volunteerism has been a strong and constant
“Comparing today’s Haverford students with the Yale students of nearly 30 years ago, I’m struck by the inversion of emphasis, with service far outweighing activism,” says Benston. “Today, it seems, the feared futility of activism diverts reformist energies into service.” (“Still,” he adds, “during the war in Iraq, activism has asserted itself on campus, and our students have been among the most creative and committed activist leaders in the Philadelphia area.”)
“But seen more positively,” he says, “students today
arrive already more experienced in serving their communities, and they
recognize better than we did how complex and gritty the work of reshaping
a community actually is. Service here really sets quite a special standard
Paul Hoffstein, a member of student council at the time, believed that
Haverford should have an organized way for students to help the surrounding
communities. “We wanted to line up opportunities for students, and
make it easier for them to volunteer their time,” he says.
With the full support of Haverford’s then-acting president, Steve Cary ’37, the four men wrote a grant proposal for a community service program and submitted it to the William Penn Foundation. Their proposal was accepted, and the Foundation awarded them $24,000 to start Eighth Dimension, a sum the College agreed to match. During the first year, the newly hired program director focused on building relationships with the community and creating a list of nonprofit contacts, with the help of the Career Development Office. Initial projects included mentoring and tutoring fatherless children in next-door Ardmore and visiting elderly care facilities. Although the campus culture at the time was more one of activism than service, students were drawn to the new program.
They felt the impact of Eighth Dimension not only as undergraduates,
but also in their post-college years. “The experience of volunteering
affected some students greatly,” says Hoffstein. “It changed
what they wanted to do with their lives.” Hoffstein himself had
not had much time to volunteer as a student, but following his graduation
he provided dental services for the poor in North Philadelphia.
When Marilou Allen, the present director of Eighth Dimension, first came to Haverford in 1981, there were 100 agencies on the nonprofit roster and approximately 125 students volunteering for these organizations. “It was difficult for many to do individual placements, because of the academic rigors,” she says. She tried to involve students in “workdays,” individual days of service such as Martin Luther King Day and the United Way Day of Caring. Allen was also responsible for opening Haverford’s Women’s Center, and as a result was able to bring a slew of new nonprofits to the roster, all dealing with women’s issues. Under her leadership, Eighth Dimension flourished; by her second year at Haverford, over half the campus was involved in service activities. Today, 600 students volunteer throughout the year, and the nonprofit roster boasts 200 agencies.
Allen acts as a liaison between nonprofits and students seeking individual placements. She counsels them in their decisions and encourages them to find an organization that will make the best use of their skills. “I usually give them three to call and make appointments with over the course of a week, so they can debate their choices during the weekend,” she says. She has also supported students who wanted to start their own programs. One such student was John Botti ’92, who founded Housing Outreach Action Program (H.O.A.P.), which sends Haverford and Bryn Mawr students on service trips across the country during spring break. In high school, Botti had traveled to Appalachia with a volunteer construction group, and wanted to give Haverford students the same opportunity. So he turned to Allen and Eighth Dimension for assistance.
“She said to me, ‘Start one!’ And I thought, ‘Are you joking?’” he says. “But she said it was possible.” And what started as a couple of isolated trips to Newark, N.J. or South Carolina has expanded to include five sites and 60 student volunteers from both colleges.
Other student-run projects include Street Outreach, where students make weekly visits to Philadelphia’s Logan Circle to deliver sandwiches and hot chocolate to the homeless; Housing Improvement Project (H.I.P.), Haverford’s own Habitat for Humanity, which sends students to West and South Philadelphia to renovate houses; Heston School, a mentoring program for inner-city children in West Philadelphia; the One-On-One Tutoring Program, which matches Haverford and Bryn Mawr students with area children in grades 1-12; and AIDS Service Network (A.S.N.), fighting the disease through peer education programs. All projects are coordinated by Haverford undergraduates.
Eighth Dimension starts recruiting volunteers early in their college careers. During Customs Week, an agency/activities fair lets first-year students meet with local nonprofits or student project chairs to get more information. There’s also IMPACT, which brings a Customs group every Saturday to Philadelphia’s Eliza Shirley House, an intake shelter for homeless women and children. The Customs students play games with the children and lend them a hand with art projects.
“It makes them realize there’s more to Haverford than getting schoolwork done,” says IMPACT co-coordinator and sophomore Laura Brown. “Many students never had the opportunity to work with the underprivileged before.” Adds Nate Favini, fellow sophomore and IMPACT co-coordinator, “You tend to lose yourself in work at Haverford, and this is a good opportunity to give something back and get away from campus.”
Marilou Allen meets with many students who want to volunteer to get off
campus, or to explore careers, or because they were inspired by positive
high school service experiences. Whatever the reason, she’s pleased
to see their enthusiasm. “It’s important to keep connections
with the community,” she says, “so we don’t become the
‘ivory tower’ too good for our next-door neighbors.”
Allen feels that volunteering can be as mentally and emotionally beneficial
to the students as it is to the people whose lives they touch with their
Legacy of Service
Senior Yamile Marti-Haidar began realizing the importance of service at an early age. As a child in San Juan, Puerto Rico, she often accompanied her parents and siblings to homeless shelters, particularly during the holidays: “We would bring food with us and just spend quality time with them.” She and her family went on to help many of the city’s children and elderly, and eventually formed a foundation that supports, among other projects, a summer camp as part of the nonprofit center Centro Sor Isolina Ferré in Caimito.
Yamile’s volunteer spirit has been invaluable to Haverford, where
she serves as chair of the advisory committee for Eighth Dimension and
assists students who want to start their own projects. Yamile herself
started a tutoring program three years ago at the Roberto Clemente Middle
School in North Philadelphia, where every Saturday morning she and her
classmates help eighth graders with their reading and math skills. “At
times I worried that we would be too busy with our studies or too tired
from a Friday night to make it to the tutoring sessions on Saturday morning,”
she says. “But we knew this was a commitment and, in fact, both
groups of students have benefited from the experience.” Because
the school is bilingual, Haverford students studying Spanish have a chance
to practice their language skills while simultaneously making a difference
in the lives of the children.
Yamile plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work and a law degree, and use her education to continue helping the citizens of Puerto Rico. “I would love to go back and try to implement what I have learned,” she says.
Friend and Mentor
In high school, sophomore Sara Ansell recognized the needs of her rural Alabama hometown. She saw the children and migrant workers who could benefit from academic tutoring and took it upon herself to respond to the problem. She involved more than 70 of her classmates in a one-on-one tutoring program, matching up high school students with elementary school children from third through sixth grades. She also volunteered at a literacy council, teaching English as a second language to Lithuanian immigrants, helping them earn their G.E.D.s.
It was natural, then, for her to glide into People Interested in People (P.I.P.), Eighth Dimension’s Big Brother/Sister program, which pairs students with children ages five to 15 from local communities. The older siblings see their younger counterparts at least every two weeks and call in between meetings. Last year, Sara’s little sister was eight-year-old Mariah, who enjoyed long walks around the campus nature trail with her big sis, naming the ducks in the pond, and participating in monthly group activities with other sibling pairs, like ice skating and “Make Your Own Pizza” day. This year, Sara took on the role of program coordinator, matching Haverford students with the children, making sure that the older sibs call their younger ones, and handling publicity and mailings. “Most students are looking to be role models,” she says, “and some may have tutoring experience, though this isn’t an academic program.”
Sara doesn’t take a vacation from volunteering during the summer. She serves as a counselor for Serendipity Day Camp, a campus-based Eighth Dimension program that runs from the last week of June to the second week of August and is directed by Haverford alumni. Haverford juniors and seniors act as counselors, and children from nearby neighborhoods ages six to 13 come to swim, hike, learn arts and crafts or drama, play sports, and take field trips.
Last summer, Sara was in charge of a group of older children in Bunk Five. “At the beginning of the summer they thought we, the counselors, were ‘uncool,’” she says, “but by the end, you could tell they really liked and respected us.” The counselors were encouraged to create their own activities, usually following a weeklong theme in the mornings, so Sara put her dance background to use in crafting a “Star Search” type of variety show that would spotlight her charges’ talents. A highlight of the summer was an overnight held in the gym and campus center, where campers and counselors curled up in their sleeping bags and shared stories and scares.
“Many of the Serendipity kids have also signed up for P.I.P. this year,” says Sara, “so I get a chance to know them even better.”
Senior Andrew Hollander has unusual talents. He can make a rubber band jump between two fingers, and tie rope into a knot without using his fingers. But it’s not enough that he knows how to perform these feats; he wants the patients of a local hospital to acquire these same skills. Andrew, an amateur magician, visits Philadelphia’s Friends Psychiatric Hospital once a week to demonstrate and teach tricks to the children there, using everyday objects such as pencils, cards, and rubber bands.
He was inspired by Project Magic, a program in which famed illusionist David Copperfield partnered with physical therapists at hospitals to use magic as a form of therapy. “Much of occupational therapy is focused on getting patients back to a normal level of functioning,” says Andrew. “Magic uses a lot of physical activity, so the idea is to pick tricks that coordinate with movements that patients need to practice.” The patients, explains Andrew, will be more motivated to participate in therapy if they have the goal of learning magic. And knowing how to do something as fascinating as a magic trick, something most “normal” people can’t do, boosts their self-esteem and cognitive skills.
Andrew has been involved in both magic and community service since childhood. In his hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., he entertained at birthday parties, childhood development centers, synagogues and churches, and was a volunteer teacher for Junior Achievement. Upon arriving at Haverford, he wanted to develop a program with goals similar to Project Magic’s, and found he could best meet patients’ needs at Friends. His efforts have been rewarded with enthusiasm and respect from the children he delights.
“It’s also incentive for them to behave,” he says.
“If they’re good, they get to come to the ‘magic group.’”
In the meantime, he says, “I love practicing something I enjoy
while working with children. It’s great to put together two interests.”
When senior Samir Shah was volunteering with Congreso de Latinos’ HIV Street Outreach last year, he became quite familiar with the crowded streets of North Philadelphia. That’s where he offered condoms and informational materials to the locals, particularly youths and injection drug users. He confronted disinterest, occasional hostility, denial, and long-standing gender-defined roles. “Street Outreach had to combat the machismo of the culture,” he says.
Samir persisted, spending one afternoon a week in North Philly’s
shopping district, in areas where drugs are bought and sold. He only had
a few seconds to explain who he was, what he was doing, and why they should
take an AIDS preventive kit. “Sometimes there would be people on
the street selling bootleg CDs,” he says, “and I’d look
at the CDs first before going into my spiel, so they’d feel a connection
with me right away.”
“If you just get them to listen,” says Samir,” you’re doing them a great service.”
The sociology major started working at Congreso de Latinos, a nonprofit that helps others to understand the issues confronting the Philadelphia Latino community, as part of a class called “The Sociology of AIDS.” “Because many of the residents don’t seek out public health services, we brought the services to them," he says. Besides handing out preventative materials, Street Outreach took a van into the neighborhoods to conduct oral swab testing on interested individuals.
Being from New York City, Samir knew he wanted to volunteer in an urban
environment, and Congreso afforded him that opportunity. His colleagues
and supervisors made his daunting job easier. "There's so much to
be depressed about," he says, "but they try to find the fun
in what they do."
He finds gratification in volunteering that, in some ways, is better than what might be found at a paying job. "When an organization wants to keep you as a volunteer, you get more important work than when you're paid," he says. "You learn a lot and get valuable experience."