Harvard graduate student Yailett Fernandez (from far left), undergrads Winta Haile ’12, Anne Cervas ’14, and Juliet Spies-Gans ’15, volunteered at the Greater Boston Food Bank through Harvard College Serves. Spies-Gans said it was nice to think that the experience of service would be the basis of the relationships she made with her soon-to-be housemates. Spies-Gans will be living in Lowell House this fall.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Welcoming service

5 min read

Freshmen bond with new housemates through volunteerism, good works

Although Greer Gardner and Juliet Spies-Gans won’t move into Lowell House until next year, the two Harvard College freshmen have already done their new campus home proud. Gardner and Spies-Gans gave up a gorgeous spring afternoon to join other rising Lowellians at the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB) on April 20, where they helped fill boxes with beans, pasta, coffee, and other goods for delivery to pantries that feed hungry families in eastern Massachusetts.

“A couple hours out of our lives will help hundreds of families feel a little better, a little safer in the world,” said Spies-Gans. “It was also a lot of fun getting to know some of the Lowellians that I had never met before and becoming better friends with those that I did know. I don’t know many things that could have been better uses of that time.”

Gardner, Spies-Gans, and dozens of their classmates are connecting with each other, their new House, and their community this spring through Harvard College Serves (HCS). Launched this year by the College Events Board, HCS joins incoming freshmen with House public service student representatives and public service tutors for volunteer projects at area nonprofits. Gene Corbin, assistant dean of student life for public service, said that the program aims to further the ethos of service at Harvard College.

“Many undergraduates volunteer regularly through the Phillips Brooks House Association’s programs or efforts supported by the office of the Public Service Network,” Corbin explained. “Our hope is that Harvard College Serves will get some students who aren’t currently involved to learn something about needs in Boston and Cambridge as well. It’s a way of saying to all students that service is something the school really values.”

In the weeks since Housing Day, College students have filled backpacks with clothes, school supplies, and toys at Cradles to Crayons in Brighton; painted and landscaped at the Graham and Parks Elementary School in Cambridge; and helped clean up at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. Rising sophomores affiliated with all of Harvard’s Houses have pitched in.

Winta Haile ’12, the public service student representative for Lowell House, coordinated the volunteer effort at the Greater Boston Food Bank. She said that Harvard College Serves provides an opportunity for House leaders to welcome and build relationships with incoming residents through the shared experience of public service.

“The program plants the idea that service is something you can enjoy and something you can do regularly,” Haile said. “I think it cultivates a new group of people who can join the service ranks so that we can get more people helping more people. It also integrates new people into the House. I like all the people that I met today, and I had a really good time with them.”

At the GBFB, Lowellians stood with teams from Boston University and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt along a stainless steel conveyor belt. Each volunteer staffed a station that corresponded to a type of food or good submitted by an area market or retailer: canned tuna, coffee, salad dressings and condiments, health and beauty products, for example. The volunteers grabbed items off the belt as they passed by, discarding damaged or open packages. They packed the good foodstuffs in boxes, and handed off the boxes to other volunteers for weighing and quality control.

“It was a lot of boxes and bottles,” said Haile, whose station at one point threatened to become a scene from “I Love Lucy.” “I think there was a certain method that I figured out after a couple of tries.”

When the shift was over, the crew adjourned to the break room for snacks and some information about the impact of their efforts. Amy Cooper-Ayles, director of the GBFB’s volunteer programs, told the team that they salvaged more than 2 tons of food for Boston-area pantries in only two hours. As a result, Cooper-Ayles said, 3,350 hungry people would get a meal.

“The number one group of people we feed is children,” she said. “After that it’s seniors and the homeless. Last year we fed 545,000 people in the Boston area with help from volunteers like you.”

Gardner, who hails from Dallas, said that she regularly makes time for service because “it’s important to appreciate the resources we have and give back to the Boston community.”

“My experience serving at the food bank was fantastic,” she said. “I was sorting through the tomato products, and had a great time bonding with my future housemates.

It’s amazing what a large impact a few volunteers can have.”

Spies-Gans said that the event gave her a better understanding of the problem of hunger in the Boston area, and a chance to do something about it. She pointed out that it was also nice to think that the experience of service would be the basis of the relationships she made with her soon-to-be housemates.

“It was great being able to literally feel the difference that we made as we handled the various foods and supplies,” she said. “I feel like I can walk up to any of my fellow workers now and start a real, feeling conversation. That is something I didn’t have with many of those people before.”