Phillips Brooks House Volunteers Work for Intangible Rewards

Julie Monrad
Spare Change News

When students enter college they often have the mindset that life is full of possibilities, especially in reference to saving the great big world. They have a fresh start and a future ahead of them, as well as four years to grow into who they wish to be for the rest of their lives. With an abundance of knowledge behind them and an unlimited amount ahead, the world is their oyster, all those wonderful graduation speeches ringing in their ears.

Then the daily routine begins. In a life of waking up, rushing to get dressed, running to daily commitments, making time for friends and family, indulging in a little “you” time, eating at some point, working out, showering (preferably), finishing any work from the day and somehow making it to bed at a reasonable time, it seems overwhelming to merely consider devoting another hour or two of a precious 24 to figuring out how to save the world. How can anyone even momentarily ponder how to feed all the hungry and heal all illnesses when just finishing economics homework seems impossible?

Think again about that economics class. Didn’t it teach you that the “invisible hand” was the best way for the world to function anyways? If everyone works toward whatever benefits them, the world markets – and therefore the world – will turn unhindered. So why muck up the natural state of affairs by spending your limited time helping others?

At that moment, at 1:16 AM when a student sits, elbows propped on a desk, head in hands, brow furrowed, desperately trying to finish their economics problem set for their 9 AM section, the student wonders, for what reason are they so dedicated to this class? Only to realize, it in fact is not dedication but motivation driving them. They are motivated by the looming semester end grade.

Dedication is something beyond the obvious reward of marks or pay. Dedication means giving oneself to a project or belief because of your passion. It is a concept to which 1,400 students at Harvard subscribe.

Regardless of their heavy workloads, art projects, newspaper articles to write, sports schedules and everything else, they dedicate hours of their week to the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), Harvard’s community service organization.

If so busy, if so pressed for time, for what reason do these college students give up hours of their week to a program without concrete rewards? The only answer to such illogical decisions must be as abstract as the rewards: it is the human element.

Examine the numbers: 1,400 Harvard students volunteer for 86 community service organizations. Twenty student officers give vast chunks of their week to organizing PBHA as a broad organization needing all the accoutrements such as fundraising, book keeping, weekly meetings, publicity and, of course, workers. Each PBHA program also requires one or two people to organize volunteers and co-workers. Not to forget the 12 summer programs that are, as the student officer Diana Barnstein said, “all student run.” All this energy goes to help 10,000 people in the greater Boston area.

To keep all 86 programs and 1,400 volunteers straight, PBHA breaks itself down into six subcategories: mentoring programs, advocacy, organizing, housing and health programs, after-school and interschool programs, adult services programs, summer urban programs (SUP) and other summer programs.
Student officers Carolyn Chou and Nadia Farjood oversee the after-school and mentoring programs, respectively. Both programs focus on helping children in the Boston area develop some aspect of themselves beyond the school curriculum. As PBHA’s president and Keylatch Afterschool Program volunteer Ekene Obi-Okoye said, “For the youth that I work with it’s a lot about empowerment, to know that they can do what anyone else can do. They don’t have to listen to anyone tell them they can’t.” Obi-Okoye went on to describe the support system they create for young children in the various programs, one in which students learn how to try, maybe even fail, and yet have the reassurance that someone is in fact there for them. Programs such as Leaders! mentors children to grow in confidence while programs such as the Franklin Afterschool Enrichment Program (FASE) tutor children in their academics.

During the summer months, with 12 summer programs on three different sites and an average of two volunteers per group of eight children, the focus on Boston’s children only grows. The camps run for seven weeks and include not only Harvard volunteers as counselors, but also former campers now old enough to act as Junior Counselors.

During the school-year months, programs under the Adult Services and Advocacy, Organizing, Housing and Health Programs lend a hand to Boston’s adult community. Pets as Therapy visits the elderly in the hopes of raising their spirits while others, such as the Youth Prison Tutoring Program, help rising adults in the community find their place. As for those in between, PBHA volunteers build homes with Habitat for Humanity, partake in legal transactions and even run their very own homeless shelter from November into April. The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter truly exhibits the student community’s desire to make a difference, whether in the early preparation stages in the fall months or during the night shift of the winter months, as they struggle to find extra cots in the hopes of admitting one or two more people into the refuge of University Lutheran Church.

To run all of these various programs, PBHA requires generous monetary donations and people’s time and effort to keep community service projects, especially the summer programs, affordable for the targeted communities. Besides writing letters asking for donations, PBHA volunteers plan annual plant sales and bike sales. “It’s been fun,” said fundraising officer Winshen Liu, “and I think what’s frustrating is the money’s a very small percentage of PBHA’s budget. Three thousand dollars and a budget of I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands is nothing. It’s better than nothing, but that has been a little difficult.” To help fill in this financial gap, PBHA also holds an annual auction at The Queen’s Head, Harvard’s student pub. Mostly though, PBHA subsists off grants and personal donations.

Accounting for those who donate to PBHA, the number of people dedicated to community service far exceeds 1,400. More importantly, the demographic extends beyond that of the ever bushy-tailed, bright-eyed, hopeful college student still figuring out how to save the world. It involves the adults of the Boston community, those who have seen the real world and know that helping even one person without receiving a tangible reward is a great gift.

Back then to the question: why? Why do all these people so selflessly give to others? Did they not listen to the words of Adam Smith? PBHA teaches students so many life skills if they pay attention. As the President Ekene Obi-Okoye pointed out, “I had to learn how to interview people. I learned how to work with directors, how to train, how to teach other people and develop other students. I learned what a budget looked like, how to run a meeting – little skills that mean a lot. Not just philosophical thinking but practical skills.” So in a sense students do get a reward, but still not rewards they can hold in their hands or necessarily polish their résumé with. So why do they help?

The only answer comes from the Advocacy and Housing Program group officer, Jacob Cederbaum. “I stayed with all these programs because there is this really great feeling to doing this work. I would always leave in the morning after my shift with this kind of warm fuzzy feeling. It’s super difficult to describe … I loved helping out but also working just alongside other great Harvard students and volunteers and also working in this community of people that I found to be gracious and generous and just good people down on their luck.” The best guess may be that at the end of the day, the reason so many people dedicate their time to helping others is because of a vague, inexplicable human connection.

JULIE MONRAD is a freshman at Harvard University.

PHOTO / SARAH MUMANACHIT

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