WATERVILLE — Colby College senior Sarah Kaplan got more out of taking the course, “Faith, Class and Community,” than she ever imagined.

It was a new, experimental course, one that would send its nine students into the Waterville community last fall to explore faith-based organizations’ efforts to provide sustained poverty relief. The students volunteered at the organizations and developed deep relationships with the people there.

Kaplan, 21, of Huntington, Long Island, New York, had been a Girl Scout in high school where she helped with food drives, so the Waterville Food Bank seemed to be an appropriate place to volunteer. She lives at Colby’s Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons downtown with nearly 200 other students.

“I’d go on Mondays and work with food pickups,” Kaplan said Thursday at a gathering of fellow classmates and community partners at Colby’s Grossman Hall to celebrate the results of the course. “It was very good for me to be a part of that because a lot of volunteers are older. You’re moving 50 pounds of food in a box, and to think that you have these incredible, 80-year-old women doing this themselves and other people right up there with them is extraordinary.”

Kaplan recalled shopping at Hannaford one Sunday night while she was enrolled in the course and seeing a mountain of food boxes store customers purchased for $10 each that would be donated to those in need at Thanksgiving.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to have to move all those boxes tomorrow,'” she said.

Kaplan and her classmates not only volunteered with the organizations, they also learned about how faith-based organizations in Waterville help people in need with food, clothing, fuel, personal essentials and other necessities. Students wrote profiles about the pastors, volunteers and others who work in those organizations. The profiles are available on the course website, web.colby.edu/faithinwaterville.

“The Waterville area is home to a remarkable number of faith-based organizations engaged in sustained poverty relief efforts,” Colby senior Tori Paquette wrote as part of an introduction to the class report. “While most American congregations engage in some form of social service, sociologist Mark Chaves found that they only devote an average of $1,200 to these efforts annually and typically focus on one-time events. Waterville churches and synagogue collectively devote tens of thousands of dollars and dozens of volunteers to addressing persistent local needs.”

Paquette, 21, helped create the course, which was taught by David Freidenreich, Pulver Family Associate Professor of Jewish Studies who also is director of the Jewish Studies Program and associate director for the Center for Small Town Jewish Life in Colby’s Department of Religious Studies.

Paquette, a student research assistant, developed partnerships with faith-based organizations including the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, Evening Sandwich Program at the Universalist Unitarian Church, Saturday sandwich program at First Baptist Church, Beth Israel Congregation, Winslow Baptist Church, First Congregational United Church of Christ and its essentials closet,  Living Water Community Church, Pleasant Street United Methodist Church on whose property the food bank is located, and Second Baptist Church. Kennebec Valley Community Action Program also was among the partners.

Paquette said the Evening Sandwich Program provided nearly 53,000 meals in 2018, with that number representing more than $20,000 worth of food; the First Baptist Church sandwich program distributed 1,674 meals; and this year, the Interfaith Resource Fund provided more than $19,441 to those in need.

“These numbers are astonishing, not only because they reflect the level of need in our community, but also the commitment of community members to meeting those needs,” Paquette wrote in her introduction.

She said Thursday at the gathering that the Interfaith Council, of which the faith-based organizations are a part, has a resource fund to help those in need.

A Jewish Studies major whose minor is in creative writing, Paquette, of Rochester, New Hampshire, said she is a Christian and currently applying to divinity schools.

“I want to be a pastor and write about theology in a way that’s accessible, to use creative writing to talk about theology,” she said.

Majoring in Jewish Studies, she said, gave her a theological framework and the opportunity to do comparative religious studies, learn about churches and about how important congregations are to community.

“I want more people to know what’s going on in their community and be involved,” she said.

The students, staff and community partners worked from the premise that local faith-based organizations share a common philosophy — that all humans are of equal worth and people have an obligation to care for fellow members of the Greater Waterville community. The goal is not only to help meet people’s basic physical needs, but also to help empower them with a stronger sense of dignity and communal belonging, according to Paquette’s report.

 

LONGTIME COLBY INVOLVEMENT

Freidenreich’s course, which he plans to teach again, is only one avenue through which Colby students engage in the community. Some do independent study with faculty, take part in internships and are involved in other ways, including volunteer work.

Elizabeth Jabar, Colby’s director of Civic Engagement and Community Partnerships, who lives in and has an office in Colby’s Alfond Commons downtown, said a statistics, census and society course partners with Waterville fire Chief Shawn Esler, for instance, and an economics class partnering with the food bank looks at poverty and food insecurity and the economic impact. The 196 students living in the downtown building are serving at 50 different community organizations, according to Jabar.

“This fall, 819 Colby students were doing some kind of engagement in the community, which is about half of the student body,” Jabar said.

She said that Colby is only 15 months into its civic engagement program and the community has been incredibly supportive.

But Colby’s symbiotic relationship with Waterville really goes back many years, as Maili Bailey, director of the Evening Sandwich Program, said Thursday at the gathering.

In 1990, when the sandwich program started, two young men from Colby raised money for the program and volunteered there, she said.

“Colby volunteers have come down the hill, which I think is fabulous, and we’ve had some special volunteers who have volunteered all four years of their time at Colby,” she said.

Bailey recalled two Colby students who, when they graduated, donated $5,000 and $2,500, respectively to the sandwich program. It was a significant gift, considering one dollar creates 2.5 meals, she said.

“So that was big — beyond words,” she said.

Lora Downing, who supervises the Essentials Closet at the Congregational Church, said Colby student Chiamaka Ubani volunteered with the closet as part of the course and she was welcoming to people coming in for help and was comfortable starting conversations with them.

“Chiamaka is our volunteer, and I like that she came to us with the skills that we needed,” Downing said. “On Thursdays, she was a piece of our operation that we needed and that was wonderful. As a retired educator, I see this as a huge, important piece for Colby to be offering to their students.”

Freidenreich said that there is no quantitative data to prove that Waterville is way above the curve in terms of what faith-based organizations do to help the community, but the work they do is incredible.

“So many churches are so invested in this work,” he said. “We talk about tensions between Colby and the community, but our partners were really eager to work with Colby students and Colby as an institution. I didn’t encounter any obstacles.”

Besides Freidenreich, Paquette and Jabar, those who helped develop the course included the Rev. Maureen Ausbrook of the Congregational Church and the Interfaith Council, Sarah Rockford, a staff member at Colby’s Center for Small Town Jewish Life, and Judy Donovan of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyons.


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