Thomas Ronan ’21 is concentrating in computer science, not carnivorous plants. So why did he spend one night researching the Venus flytrap?
Because one of Ronan’s charges at the Mattapan Early Elementary School (MEES) got a Venus flytrap for his birthday. The dapper seven-year-old (he wears a tie to school every day) was excited to tell Ronan, a 4Boston volunteer, all about the gift. Before returning to his service placement the following week, Ronan looked up fun facts on the plants, and tips for care. He typed up his own age-appropriate info sheet and gave it to the lad the next time he saw him.
None of that extra work counted toward the ostensible four hours a week Ronan volunteered at MEES, but he was glad to do it. It was the same story over at the Jackson-Mann Community Center in Allston. Finance and accounting student Brian Piccola ’20 carved out spare time to draw pictures of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to bring to his kids in the after-school program. He even boned up on their favorite new cartoons such as Dragon Ball Z, so that he could surprise and delight the kids by spouting quotes back at them.
Ronan and Piccola are just a couple of the 108 Carroll School students who performed service in 22 4Boston placements across the city this past academic year. And 4Boston is just one (albeit the largest) of Boston College’s several service organizations.
“It’s an amazing thing to me, the number of students at BC who want to volunteer,” said Vivien Morris, founder and co-chair of the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition (MFFC). “That’s part of the culture of the University.”
Shuttling to Service
Morris is also the community engagement manager for the Carroll School’s Joseph E. Corcoran Center for Real Estate and Urban Action, which began running a daily shuttle this year to bring volunteers to sites in Mattapan and Dorchester. Plenty of students perform service close by the Heights as well, in Brighton and Allston. But the black Ford transit van that now ferries students like Ronan to MEES and other sites in Morris’ neighborhood has presented visible, vehicular evidence of Boston College’s commitment to its urban community.
Wherever they travel, the students make a real impact in the education, health care, and social service sites that they serve. Morris says that Haley McCormack ’18, for example, didn’t require any handholding when she interned at the MFFC in the spring, helping to plan an annual fitness event in the neighborhood. “It’s been a real joy having a BC student who can put in the time to do a lot of the nuts and bolts of making this the big event that we want,” Morris said. “Haley’s been extremely helpful.”
At the Jackson-Mann after-school program, Piccola and more than a dozen of his peers filled a critical need. They provided the children, aged 5 to 10, with safe activities and mentorship between 2 and 6 p.m., when their parents were still at work. Besides helping the children with their homework and playing basketball with them, the 4Boston volunteers spent time listening to them.
“After snacks, that’s when they’d open up and talk about their lives,” said Piccola. “It’s been rewarding to see how much the kids have grown” over his two years in the program, “not only academically but as people. . . . It’s cool just being able to have a normal conversation with them. They’ll ask, ‘How’d your exam go?’”
Conversation is key at MEES, too, say Ronan and his peers there. The school serves a large Haitian immigrant population, including children who’ve experienced trauma. Simply talking to the kids helps with their language and social development.
Moreover, MEES has a large student-to-teacher ratio, so a few extra adults on hand means kids can get the attention they need. “It’s good to be there to pick up on the subtle little details,” said Ola Zaworski, Connell School ’18. “Like if a kid’s detached from an activity or you can just tell they’re having an off day. We can go up and try to resolve the problem. That’s maybe the most moving part, to be able to turn around their day a little bit—to impact that kid’s life even in a small way.”
Before the shuttle bus began this past semester, students had to travel up to two hours each way to their placements, switching among multiple trains and buses. Or they spent $40 to Uber it. By contrast, the shuttle ride took 20 or 25 minutes, and cost the students nothing.
“I rave about the shuttle,” said Sarah Fay, Lynch School ’20, a MEES volunteer. “I think it’s the best thing in the world.”
Just as the shuttle connects volunteers with their placements, their service connects them to the community. So it’s fitting for the Corcoran Center to provide that support. The Center’s mission is to strengthen interdisciplinary work that advances the quality of life in marginalized urban neighborhoods.
“Each day, students from across disciplines are helping organizations on the front lines of social change here in our city,” said Neil McCullagh, executive director of the Center.
“They benefit from understanding Boston in its entirety,” said Morris of the volunteers, many of whom are poised to become tomorrow’s leaders. “After all, what is an urban environment? It’s not just the hills of Chestnut Hill. Any student in the Boston area needs to understand it all, and you can’t fully understand it without some experience that challenges the information you receive through the media or other sources.”
“When students leave BC,” said McCullagh, “wherever they go, they will be better prepared if they have a deeper understanding of urban life. If we can connect students to experiential learning opportunities that strengthen their understanding of urban life, then each one of those students will be a better leader, a more informed citizen and better prepared as a change agent to work toward the ideal of greater equity.”
Working toward equity, working with underserved children—these might be challenges. However, said Piccola, “it never felt like a chore.”
Patrick L. Kennedy, Morrissey College ’99, is a writer in Boston and the co-author of Bricklayer Bill: The Untold Story of the Workingman’s Boston Marathon.
Photo of students at shuttle bus stop by Media Technology Services at Boston College. Photo of students at Young Achievers Pilot School in Mattapan provided by the Corcoran Center for Real Estate and Urban Action.