PROVIDENCE — Because the pandemic caused a rapid closure of schools last spring, the FriarServe program at Providence College had to get creative and go virtual — quickly.
For the past few years, FriarServe has been a constant for five Providence Catholic schools that have been paired with volunteers from the PC community. Currently, more than 40 volunteers meet virtually with students weekly to offer their time through tutoring, reading, clubs, activities and so much more.
After the call was made to go 100 percent virtual at the start of the pandemic, Alycia Pessoa, FriarServe coordinator and Providence College Public Affairs Specialist, said that the volunteers, students and their families really rose to the occasion.
“It was a lot of figuring stuff out. We just took anything that we could and turned it virtual at a moment’s notice. For the most part it was a pretty smooth transition. The world changed so much for these elementary students and I really wanted to make sure we didn’t take FriarServe away from them too. It’s a strong bond. The schools are grateful that there’s an option to keep the students going until we return back to normal.”
This semester FriarServe continues to offer a variety of activities and meet-ups through Zoom including book club, dance and civic engagement to name a few.
“The fun thing about this program is the sky’s the limit,” said Pessoa. “Service is so important at PC. I love when I get emails throughout the summer from students who can’t wait to get back to helping out. They really look forward to it. It’s enriching for both parties.”
The FriarServe service initiative launched in October 2017 thanks to a $100,000 grant presented by Providence College to Catholic schools in the Diocese of Providence to commemorate the college’s centennial that year. 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. The program pairs students, faculty and staff from PC with local schools, including Bishop McVinney, Blessed Sacrament, St. Augustine, St. Pius V and St. Thomas Regional.
A young woman like Marlies Kool, 23, who juggles school and sports, naturally has a lot on her plate. But, Kool, who is studying for her Master of Business Administration degree at Providence College, found the best way to give back and make meaningful connections with her community while balancing work and college life. With 19 of her Women’s Field Hockey teammates, she volunteers her time, now virtually, reading to little ones in Pre-K. As a child, Kool loved the whimsical verses of Dr. Seuss, so she was eager to share his beloved books with the students.
“I was not expecting that reading for half an hour could mean so much to the kids. But every time they seem to be very happy. It’s very rewarding to see the kids happy with a smile on their face after reading to them.”
While everyone had to make sacrifices to prevent the spread of the virus, those involved with FriarServe worked hard to ensure students would not lose out on precious time spent with the volunteers. Kool has seen firsthand how important this program is for these students, especially during the pandemic.
“Since the pandemic, obviously everyone’s lives have changed. The kids are lucky they are able to go to school, but I can imagine their environment is a lot of the same. I think it’s good for them to have a change in environment, even if I’m only there virtually. As a team, we love to give back to the community. It doesn’t always have to be something big, little things can mean a lot. I signed up for FriarServe because it’s a small thing I can do each week that puts a smile on kids’ faces.”
Kaplan Hasanoglu, Ph.D, a Providence College Philosophy professor, runs a virtual Civic Engagement Club through FriarServe. After receiving an invite to volunteer, he jumped on the opportunity to help.
Through FriarServe, Hasanoglu promotes civic engagement to six students ranging from fifth through eighth grade. His goal is to show them how to connect their beliefs about the world to their knowledge of current events and discuss specific ways they can address problems.
“They identify issues with current society that they feel passionate about. I hear their perspectives on various topics that arise and we talk about very common sense ways they can be empowered to address these on their own.”
He encourages students to start locally, whether that includes calling up town hall or watching virtual school committee meetings — he wants them to know that there is a place for them to participate in society, even at a young age.
“Just the act that they could call town hall was a big deal for them,” he said. “Everything is political whether we like it or not and it’s important to teach them how to address their civic life in a positive way. I was pleasantly surprised to see how informed they were. I liked their attitude and I was encouraged by their energy and passion. They were a fun group and it was a rewarding experience working with these young people.”
For now, they may not be gathering in person, but the FriarServe volunteers are committed to staying connected amidst the pandemic. The offerings continue to have a tremendous impact on students and families. St. Augustine School Principal Janet Rufful explained that the students from FriarServe have not only provided mentoring and tutoring, but they have assisted in drama club, after-school programs and the arts.
“This year the online tutoring program filled a definite need and proved to be beneficial in many ways to our students. The FriarServe students were diligent in their approach and their consistency helped students with academic needs and gave them a connection that was out of their bubble. Students had limited contact with others and this allowed them an outlet that otherwise was not available to them. The parents, students, and teachers are appreciative of the FriarServe students.”