Volunteerism at Harvard

Courtesy OF Pbha

The brightly colored balloons bobbing in the Yard did the trick this year. The class of 2007 made its way in impressive numbers to Phillips Brooks House for the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) open house, eager to save the world, one afterschool program at a time.

“There was a lot of excitement, especially from first-years,” says Ayirini M. Fonseca-Sabune ’04, president of PBHA. After a volunteer shortage last year, things are looking up for the organization and public service in general.

“I think PBHA is in a really stable place as an organization right now financially and also in terms of safety and liability,” says Fonseca-Sabune.

PBHA has approximately 1,800 volunteers and serves 10,000 people. The ranks of Harvard volunteers swell when groups outside the scope of PBHA, like Project HEALTH and HAND, are counted. Harvard gets a lot of mileage out of its volunteer ambassadors in terms of warm and fuzzy public relations. It’s sometimes unclear how much Harvard gives back to students volunteering their time. What is clear to volunteers is what they get back themselves. Public service affects course choices and vocational choices after graduation. It can mean frantic late night phone calls from teenage mentees and finding beds for people who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets. The diversity of programming is overwhelming and sometimes confusing. For some volunteers, it is just one afternoon a week spent with grade schoolers. But for others, public service in college becomes all-consuming.

Student volunteers are the face of Harvard in underserved communities in Cambridge and the Greater Boston area. This is the face of those student volunteers.

Service With A Smile


by Matthew J. Amato

Free time is a foreign concept to Mariam F. Eskander ’05. It seems that she spends about as much time hanging out as she does frowning.

And Eskander never frowns.

By 2:40 one Saturday afternoon last spring, she has already spent the morning interviewing junior counselor candidates for the PBHA’s Boston Refugee Youth Enrichment (BRYE) Summer Program, and gone to a barbeque for the Harvard Homeless Shelter. Now Eskander is on the move once again. At 3:30, she will be down in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston running the BRYE Teen Program, a division of BRYE she helped start. On this particular day, Eskander and her fellow volunteers are taking the students in BRYE Teen to Castle Island to play volleyball. “First we need to stop and get some athletic supplies,” Eskander says with a contagious giggle as she walks through the Yard. Wearing blue wind pants and a white tee-shirt with her hair pulled back, she is ready for action. “Then we’ll go to CVS and get water. The kids are gonna’ get thirsty.”

It’s been a busy afternoon for Eskander, but not an unusual one. “I feel like her free time is spent traveling from place to place,” says blockmate Melanie D. Napier ’05. “She’s found many different niches in things that she really likes doing.”

Eskander’s “niches” include a volunteer director position at the Harvard Homeless Shelter, co-founding the BRYE Teen Program, working at the BRYE Tutoring Program and singing in and directing publicity for Kuumba. In addition, last spring Eskander, a neurobiology concentrator, took fives classes and worked in lab twice a week. “As a person, she does more stuff at Harvard than anyone I’ve ever seen,” says Christi D. Tran ’04, former executive vice president of PBHA.

At 3:40 Eskander arrives at the Vietnamese Community Center for the BRYE Teen Program. Nine Vietnamese young adults ranging in ages from 14 to 17 are waiting in the library. Most of these teenagers have been junior counselors for the BRYE Summer Program.

Some of Eskander’s fellow volunteers have already arrived and are helping the kids with their homework, others work on poetry. Eskander talks to Anhthuy Nguyen, age 15, about her junior counselor application and plans for the summer. “Don’t worry if you don’t get in this year!” Eskander assures Nguyen. “We had about 25 applications from people who speak Vietnamese, so if you don’t get in just reapply next summer.” Eskander then asks what she’ll do if she doesn’t get the job. “Probably some sort of a job where I make money,” Nguyen says frankly.

BRYE Teen is one of five services that the 15-year-old BRYE program offers to the impoverished, mainly Vietnamese immigrant community of Dorchester. Other programs include tutoring, a classroom extension program, an eight-week summer program and a one-on-one mentoring program. The Teen program came about when Eskander and fellow Harvard student Christina M. Shuman ’03 wanted to serve the community beyond the original BRYE program, which targets kids ages 6 to 14. Dorchester is high crime area and gang activity is quite prevalent.

Tran, who directed the BRYE Summer Program last year, says domestic abuse, single parenthood, illiteracy and prostitution are common facts of life for the kids BRYE attempts to help. “I’m sure half of our kids get beaten, and many of our kids have older siblings dealing drugs,” says Tran. “The group of teenagers Mariam works with are extremely high risk and vulnerable to gang activity.”