FriarServe brings Providence College volunteers to share talents in local Catholic schools

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PROVIDENCE — Catholic elementary schools in the Providence area are getting a boost in volunteers from their local Catholic college thanks to FriarServe, a new volunteer program and partnership with the diocesan Catholic School Office that pairs members of the Providence College community with service opportunities at local Catholic schools.

The program, launched in October, comes on the heels of a $100,000 grant presented by Providence College to Catholic schools in the Diocese of Providence to commemorate the college’s centennial in 2017. The grant, a portion of which was reserved for scholarships for students attending one of five Providence Catholic elementary schools, came with a promised service component through which the college would reach out to local schools beyond monetary support.

“In this, our centennial year, it is only fitting that Providence College recognize and support the efforts of Catholic education in Rhode Island,” said President Father Brian J. Shanley during the check presentation ceremony last March. “There is no better preparation for an education at Providence College than the academic rigor and spiritual formation provided at a Catholic elementary and secondary school.”

The new program, FriarServe, allows Providence College students, faculty and staff to sign up for volunteer opportunities at the five schools, including Bishop McVinney, Blessed Sacrament, St. Augustine, St. Pius V and St. Thomas Regional. According to Steven Maurano, associate vice president for Public Affairs, Community and Government Relations – the office that oversees the program – response from the college community has been enthusiastic, with more than 100 individuals signing up within the first few months.

“There’s some symmetry here,” explained Maurano. “When you went back to when the college was founded, the bishop at the time basically went door to door to every parish in the diocese. We see this type of program as giving back to the children and the great-grandchildren of those families.”

While some participants are still being placed in assignments, many began their service in the fall volunteering in programs such as after-school care, classroom assistance and extracurricular activities. Opportunities are coordinated with the assistance of the Catholic School Office, where Edward Bastia, business administrator, said he looks forward to continuing the partnership and expanding volunteer opportunities in the coming months.

“There’s quite a bit of after-school programming going on, and that seems to work out well for both the school and the volunteers,” he said.

Superintendent Daniel Ferris commented on the benefits of the program for Catholic elementary school students, some of whom come from low-income neighborhoods where they have limited opportunity to interact with university students, faculty and staff.

“One of the great values in FriarServe is it gives the children in the Providence schools an opportunity to experience Providence College, and we would hope they would aspire to consider it in their future,” he said.

“This would be especially true for children who might be the first in their family to go to college,” he added. “We want these kids to aspire to that and not think, ‘It’s for somebody else, it’s not for me.’”

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Alycia Pessoa, coordinator of Public Affairs and Community Relations for Providence College, prepared for an after-school program in a classroom at St. Thomas Regional School. As coordinator of FriarServe, Pessoa oversees placement of volunteers as well as directly running some of the program’s initiatives, such as this art club started by FriarServe volunteers in the fall. The club is provided free of charge to the school with the exception of a small supply fee charged to parents at the start of the program.

“The students were very excited and couldn’t wait to get started,” said Pessoa. “The kids, they love it. You can tell when they come in they have fun.”

Pessoa’s words ring true as 20 pre-K through sixth graders stream excitedly into the room, most wearing oversized T-shirts to protect their school uniforms as they begin a messy afternoon of finger painting. Lauren Wyse, a graduate assistant in the School of Professional Studies, and Malin Marin-Bean, director of employment in the Office of Human Resources, assist Pessoa with the program, both volunteers who signed up for FriarServe in the fall. Though the class cuts into their work day, requiring them to travel to St. Thomas Regional every Thursday afternoon, both women said their campus offices have been supportive of their involvement.

“It’s a commitment because you’re in the middle of the work day and you have to drop everything,” said Marin-Bean. “Truthfully, [it is] one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in a long time.”

For Wyse, the program allows her an opportunity to work with young children in a school setting, something she did as an undergraduate elementary and special education major.

“I’m not really around kids as much as I was and I miss them,” she said. “I just like to volunteer, too, it’s a good use of my time.”

While the program is still in its early months, with future service opportunities being explored by the college and the Catholic School Office, administrators and volunteers have both expressed a positive experience as they begin the new partnership.

“Hopefully this is the start of something very big and wonderful that will continue on,” said Marin-Bean.