By Sasha Nyary
The scene was noisy and festive at the South Hadley High School on the morning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when 25 of Mount Holyoke College’s newest students joined 115 other community members to collect, sort, and box up a tractor-trailer full of donated food.
For the fourth year, spring Orientation for newly admitted students has included participating in Bag the Community, South Hadley’s annual food drive. The event introduces the students to their new neighborhood, to each other, and to the College’s focus on community service.
Bag the Community is an all-town effort that began in 2010. Participants collect non-perishable food and personal-care products for the Neighbors Helping Neighbors food pantry. The event takes place over three days, involves about 300 volunteers, and nets about 40 percent of the organization’s total inventory. The food pantry distributes about 112,000 pounds of food to more than 400 South Hadley households each year.
Mount Holyoke joined Bag the Community as a way for new students to learn about the community they will be living in, said Kate Wasserman, associate director of new student orientation. The fact that the event coincides with Martin Luther King Jr. Day is fortuitous in that its mission is consistent with the College’s commitment to providing opportunities for students to purposefully engage in the world.
Orientation leaders worked with the local organization in collaboration with the College’s Community-Based Learning Program (CBL), which oversees community engagement.
Sue Brouillette, a Frances Perkins scholar who graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1987, founded Bag the Community. She said the collaboration with the College has allowed the event to expand its reach.
“The Mount Holyoke connection has been critical,” she said. “It shifted the whole project. It made a lot of things possible because of the extra brain power, the women power. The Mount Holyoke connection has just been marvelous.”
The College’s support for Bag the Community continues throughout the year. CBL places student interns at the food pantry, and it has helped fund bins for food sorting, promotional materials, and a documentary about the event.
Alan Bloomgarden, the CBL’s director of community engagement, leads reflection discussions with students after Bag the Community. He said they get as much from the event as they give.
“I am always struck by how much experience and passion the students bring to the community through service just by entering Mount Holyoke,” he said, noting that students who participate in Bag the Community during spring Orientation often continue to volunteer after the event.
Odiche Nwabuikwu ’18, who participated in the event last year, now volunteers as a tutor in a Holyoke public school, for example.
“Bag the Community showed me how systems like this could be organized, and how I could use them in my country, Nigeria,” she said. “And it gave me the confidence to seek out other opportunities. It opened the door for community service.”
The day before the event, the new students watched Place at the Table, a documentary about food security in the United States, and participated in a discussion about hunger and inequality. The documentary and discussion provided context about what they would observe during the food drive.
Next they signed up for a job to do alongside South Hadley volunteers, who typically include high school students, parents, and retirees. The options include pairing up with community members to pick up donations at houses or sorting donations at the high school.
Veneta Cholakova ’19, of Yambol in southeast Bulgaria, wanted to try it all. First, she and a community volunteer drove around town to collect bags of donated food.
“I was surprised to see that so many people had donated,” said Cholakova, who plans to study math, computer science, and economics. “Every house had a bag.”
She enjoyed getting to know the community volunteer—and the two helped one another. At one point, they didn’t know where they were, and Cholakova, who is a member of the Bulgarian national orienteering team, was able to navigate their way back to the main road.
“I’m good with maps,” she said. “And I liked the extra time to get to know the town.”
Back at the high school, Cholakova loaded the bags they had collected into a grocery cart and wheeled it into the cafeteria to be sorted.
Then she joined the volunteers organizing the items by type—such as pasta, rice, fruit, vegetables, and coffee—and taking them to other tables to be boxed, sealed, and hauled to the truck parked outside. For Cholakova, who had not been to the United States before enrolling at Mount Holyoke, the task was particularly educational.
“In Bulgaria we do not have some of the things you eat here,” she said. “I was checking each can and box to see what you guys eat.”
As the morning wound down, the students regrouped to talk about how they felt about connecting with their new community.
Cholakova, who used to volunteer in Bulgaria, loved meeting people in her class and in South Hadley.
“I saw from little children to old people, the whole community coming together,” she said. “It was a great experience.”
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