When Leslie Kirwan was a Harvard undergraduate, she was thankful for her experience as a volunteer at the student-run Harvard Square Homeless Shelter.
Kirwan ’79, M.P.P. ’84, who is now the dean of administration and finance for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), finds that what she did still resonates with today’s Harvard College volunteers. Students say they are thankful to her and other faculty and staff members for their support of the shelter, which is the beneficiary of FAS’ annual Giving Thanks open house.
Now in its fourth year, the open house is an opportunity for the FAS community to write notes of gratitude to fellow staff members and to donate money, blankets, socks, and food items to the shelter. More than 3,000 thank-you notes — and some $1,000 in donations — are expected to come from the event, which was held Nov. 20-21. The note-writing and donation stations were held across campus, as part of a series of University-wide appreciation initiatives that included outings hosted by Central Administration, Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard Graduate School of Design, the School of Dental Medicine, and Harvard Medical School.
“Different Schools each put their own spin on it,” said Jean Cunningham, assistant dean of administrative and educational affairs at Harvard Business School, where the Giving Thanks tradition started. “We have hot cider and sweets and treats and people really do look forward to the opportunity to see the dean, to linger and chat with friends for a bit.”
“I love this event,” Kirwan said. “This is our fourth time writing notes to people in the community, just to say, ‘You really made my job easier, you’re a great colleague.’
“It struck me that it was a missed opportunity if we didn’t use it to collect donations,” Kirwan explained. The holiday and the knowledge of what Harvard students could do for the shelter seemed like “the perfect connection and people have really embraced it,” she added.
“I think people are grateful to see each other and have an opportunity to sit around a table and laugh and talk,” said event coordinator and FAS Associate Director of Human Resources Programs and Communications Audrey Harmon. “We have people who give every year to the shelter and the students can explain what it is that they do, so when they make a contribution it’s a little more meaningful.”
The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter is part of the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), an on-campus nonprofit organization that operates more than 80 social service programs. Anna Rowe Dennis ’13, PBHA’s Nonprofit Management Fellow, began volunteering with the group during her freshman year.
“It makes a huge difference and does a really good job letting the campus know what the shelter does,” she said. “I think a lot of people are excited to hear about it, but don’t know that students are doing this amazing work right on campus.”
Sophomore Nicky Guerreiro is one of those students. She started volunteering at the shelter her freshman year. “I was spending a lot of time worrying about myself,” she said, “and not a lot of time worrying about others.” As a shift supervisor, she welcomes and assists 24 nightly guests and serves meals.
“It was a fantastic experience and it taught me a lot that I didn’t learn elsewhere,” Rowe Dennis said of her involvement with the shelter.
Kirwan, a native of Cambridge, agreed. “It really gave me a different insight into what it is to be a citizen of this area.”