Campus & Community

Phillips Brooks House: A tradition of reaching out to the community

4 min read

This is the fourth in a series of Gazette articles highlighting some of the many initiatives and charities that Harvard affiliates can support through this month’s Community Gifts Through Harvard campaign. The Community Gifts campaign allows affiliates to donate to a charity of their choice through cash, check, or payroll deduction.

Describing the work of Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) is no easy task. PBHA is a collective, so to speak, of student-run services and committees geared toward social justice. But that’s just the half of it.

Founded in 1904, PBHA has flourished into more than 70 unique programs. And with more than 1,600 volunteers, PBHA is one of the most popular on-campus organizations, often dubbed “the best course at Harvard.” Providing everything from adult education, after-school programs, and legal services, to list but a few, PBHA offers a motley and expansive catalogue that rewards its student volunteers as much as it does the communities involved. But among PBHA’s most compelling and timely offerings are its immigrant programs.

“As someone who often hears from community leaders,” says PBHA Executive Director Gene Corbin, “I can’t begin to express how valued our programs and longstanding relationships are in these communities.”

The magnitude of PBHA’s work stems, in part, from its comprehensiveness. With unspoken mantras of “excluding no one” and “opportunity for all,” PBHA paves stable ground for immigrant populations so often lost in the shuffle.

Take, for example, the Chinatown Committee — one of PBHA’s largest and most significant programs. Founded in 1976, and catering to Boston’s ever-growing Asian population, it now serves low-income residents in the oldest and most overcrowded Asian-populated neighborhood in New England. The Chinatown Committee’s after-school, big-sibling, citizenship/ESL, and teen programs aid the complex community in a multitude of ways. The free programs range from ESL and citizenship classes, mentoring partnerships, and more.

Harvard College student and counselor for Chinatown Afterschool and Chinatown Adventure (CHAD) Vicky Guo ’11 has seen firsthand the impact of her service on the Chinese community. She tells the story of a second-generation CHAD camper whose mother had been a part of the same program. “She told us about how it had shaped her as a kid,” Guo recalls. “It was for these same reasons she sent her own children to CHAD.”

Another pivotal program is Boston Refugee Youth Enrichment (BYRE), a tutoring and mentoring committee operating during the academic year helping to improve the ESL skills of Southeast Asian students from the Dorchester community. And when school’s out, BYRE doesn’t stop. For seven weeks, BYRE summer volunteers teach English in the morning while afternoons are reserved for cultural field trips and even overnight camping.

Similarly, Refugee Youth Summer Enrichment (RYSE) and Refugee Youth Term Enrichment (RYTE) assist newly immigrated teenagers from distressed countries like Kosovo, Vietnam, Somalia, and Ethiopia. Volunteers teach ESL, offer SAT preparation, and supply students with a crucial framework for navigating options for college and potential careers. The adult education programs are just as vital.

Teaching ESL to immigrated and economically disadvantaged adults in immigrant neighborhoods across Greater Boston, Partners Empowering Neighborhoods (PEN) recognizes that better language fluency leads to a higher quality of life. Language skills are necessary for landing jobs while diminishing the isolation of not knowing how to communicate, and PEN thrives by offering struggling adults a second chance in an otherwise daunting environment.

PBHA is a student-led nonprofit funded by student efforts, and in order to remain strong these students rely on financial support from the Harvard community each year through Community Gifts.

“Our student volunteers are recognized as part of the social fabric of these communities,” says Corbin. “When it comes to meeting needs and helping immigrants adapt to a new culture, we’re on the front lines.”

The Community Gifts Through Harvard campaign is still accepting gifts. To donate online, visit