SHU Students Help Communities Near and Far

FAIRFIELD, Conn.— Sacred Heart University students, staff and faculty spent time on their winter breaks making a difference by volunteering in the community and abroad. 

A group with Volunteer Programs & Service Learning (VPSL) went to Puerto Rico in December to help with hurricane relief and another group with Campus Ministry went to Jamaica in early January to help residents with disabilities.

Most recently a group of 17 undergraduate and graduate students participated in CURTIS Week, a program that immerses and engages students in community projects throughout Bridgeport. The program bears the name of SHU’s founder, Bishop Walter W. Curtis, converted to an acronym for Community Understanding and Reflection through Inner-city Service. Several nonprofits and schools throughout the neighboring city benefited from the program.

On a Wednesday afternoon a group of students were at the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants (CIRI), a nonprofit agency in Bridgeport that provides legal and social services to immigrants and refugees in the state to help them become self-sufficient, integrated and contributing members of the community. In the attic, students sorted through boxes and filed documents – a task that would go unfulfilled if it weren’t for the volunteers.  

“As a freshman, I thought CURTIS Week would be a great way to get involved,” said Allyson Stejakoski, a biology major from Warren County, NJ. “I never volunteered before and I thought this would be great way to get the ball rolling.” 

Sophomore Krystie Tirado of Bridgeport commutes to SHU. “As a commuter, it’s hard to get involved,” said the criminal justice major who decided this year she was going to make more of an effort to get involved. “It’s great to have these experiences and give back as well.”

The group stayed at Mary Immaculate Convent in Bridgeport throughout the week. Each day the group split up and volunteered at a different nonprofit in the city.

Student leader and senior Caroline Flynn said it was her second year participating in the program. “I really like it and I like doing service where SHU is. There’s a need for it, so it’s a great opportunity,” said the business management student. 

Each evening, the entire group went to a different congregation to learn about parishioners’ faith and culture. While at the CIRI students said they were excited to visit a Buddhist temple that night as it would be a new experience for them. 

“It’s really cool to go to all the services,” said senior Ryan Roberts, a business management from Stony Brook, Long Island. This was his third year participating in CURTIS Week. “It’s always an amazing experience…especially when you hear what people believe in, you hear their stories and it’s great.”

In Kingston, Jamaica in early January, 11 students, two graduate assistants and a staff member worked with the nonprofit group Mustard Seed Communities (MSC). The international nonprofit organization is dedicated to caring for vulnerable populations throughout the developing world. It provides care to over 600 children and adults with disabilities, children affected by HIV/AIDS and young mothers in crisis in Jamaica, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Zimbabwe and Malawi. 

For a week, the group stayed at one the MSC locations, Sophie’s Choice, a home for children with special needs. Junior Michael Zawadzki of Dracut, MA, said he wanted to go on the trip so he could take his passion for serving others abroad. “I never did an international service trip before.” Zawadzki, an exercise science major, said his high school partnered with MSC for a service trip to the Dominican Republic and always regretted not going so he knew he couldn’t pass up the opportunity at SHU.

During the week Zawadzki and his peers helped feed residents morning and night, interacted with residents, played games with residents and helped with a variety of projects. “We were just present,” Zawadzki said, who eventually got used to not checking his phone all the time and learned to live in the moment. 

“This trip was one of the most meaningful service trips I’ve ever been on,” he said. “Beyond being able to interact and form relationships with residents, I gained a new outlook on my faith and life in general.”

Senior Tamara Clarke, went on the trip last year but wanted to go again. She said she didn’t feel like she was finished seeing what god had to show her. “My soul was still hungry for more with what this trip had to offer.”

Clarke, a nursing major from Hamden said, “one day we worked on a project at one of the sites in preparation for a ceremony to take place that day. It was great being able to help out in the smallest ways because if we didn’t do it, it only was more work for the workers.”

Clarke said her family is from Jamaica. The work she did for residents who are overlooked “shined a light on the truth that they don’t talk about.” Clarke said she was able to bring back the truth to her family and find other ways to help MSC. 

In December, a group of 12 students led by professors Ron Hamel and Denise Griffin went to Puerto Rico to work with the organization Community Collaborations International (CCI) to help with hurricane relief efforts. The group worked to lessen the devastation on the island caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017. They stayed in Rio Grande and did most of their work in Guaynabo City. 

Griffin said the group worked at three different sites, but most of the group’s time was spent repairing a damaged concrete roof for a disabled veteran. “We stripped tar, chiseled concrete, identified cracks, mixed concrete, filled and patched holes and anything and everything else that needed to be done,” Griffin said. 

“Most of the participants did not have any experience in construction yet each one rose to the challenge, learned on the job and we achieved a common goal,” she said. “I think it safe to say that the trip changed everyone, in the most positive of ways.” 

Sophomore Denisse Brito, an exercise science student, said the work was harder than she ever imagined, but was well worth it. “I think it’s important to go on service trips because they help ground you in positivity while you bond with the people you traveled with.” 

This was Brito’s first service trip abroad and she said it was important to unplug from “real life” and learn new things. “I never thought I would work on a road in Puerto Rico and meet the most amazing people. It was a very humbling experience.”

PHOTO CAPTION: Puerto Rico and Jamaica mission trips (top) and CURTIS Week volunteers at the CT Food Bank and the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants.


About Sacred Heart University

As the second-largest independent Catholic university in New England, and one of the fastest-growing in the U.S., Sacred Heart University is a national leader in shaping higher education for the 21st century. SHU offers more than 80 undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and certificate programs on its Fairfield, Conn., campus, which is located about an hour from Manhattan and 2.5 hours from Boston. Sacred Heart also has satellites in Connecticut, Luxembourg and Ireland. More than 8,500 students attend the University’s eight colleges and schools: Arts & Sciences; Communication, Media & the Arts; Computer Science & Engineering; Health Professions; the Isabelle Farrington College of Education; the Jack Welch College of Business; Nursing; and St. Vincent’s College. Sacred Heart is rooted in the rich Catholic intellectual tradition and the liberal arts, yet at the same time develops students to be forward thinkers who enact change—in their own lives and professions and in their communities. A spirit of service, entrepreneurship and social justice is the essence of who we are and can be seen inside and outside the classroom as students learn how to make a difference far beyond Fairfield. The Princeton Review includes SHU in its Best 384 Colleges–2019 Edition, “Best in the Northeast” and Best 267 Business Schools–2018 Edition. It also placed SHU on its lists for “Happiest Students” and “Most Engaged in Community Service,” each of which comprises only 20 U.S. schools. Sacred Heart has a Division I athletics program. www.sacredheart.edu


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