RIT Gives Back
Published Aug. 29, 2014
On Friday mornings, RIT lacrosse player Patrick McMullan isn’t exercising in the weight room, doing his homework or even sleeping in. Instead, he’s on the floor in a Rochester elementary school classroom, reading to, making crafts with and doing puzzles with energetic youngsters.
“I think it’s a great way to start the weekend,” said McMullan, a third-year biomedical sciences major from Easton, Pa. “Everybody is stressed with school, and some people might think of it as a chore. But at the end of the day, it brings us back to our roots.”
Whether it’s preschoolers at Margaret’s House selling baked goods to help the United Way, fraternities raising money for charity, faculty members volunteering to teach classes to high school students or alumni collecting items to send to troops overseas, RIT has been giving back to the community for years.
Many RIT students, faculty and staff no doubt volunteer in the community individually. But hundreds of clubs, classes and organizations also work together to help others off campus— exercising dogs at a nearby animal shelter, tutoring at-risk students in Rochester schools or helping build homes for the needy in Georgia during spring break.
“We’re always doing something to engage the students to teach them,” said Phyllis Walker, assistant director for the RIT Leadership Institute and Community Service Center. “You don’t have to save the whole world. Something small can have an impact on someone’s life.”
RIT encourages community service by requiring it each semester from some student clubs. RIT also encourages its employees to take part in the annual United Way Day of Caring, where they could help out the Greater Rochester community in many ways. Even a Community Service Fair is offered on campus, when local agencies come to campus, talk about their work and recruit volunteers.
Elementary students are eager to come to school Friday mornings at Rochester’s John Williams School No. 5. That’s when a dozen or so RIT varsity athletes such as McMullan or Wallace Center personnel visit to spend time reading or interacting with the children.
“RIT READ: Hope in Action” is a collaborative community outreach program between The Wallace Center and student athletes that began in 1997.
“Our students love them,” said Principal Joanne Wideman. “They’re so happy to see them and look forward to them reading to them. They see them as a big brother or sister. And the RIT students are so tall — the children see them as this really awesome person who is there to help them learn. And they all want to go to RIT.”
Kindergarten teacher Debra Visconte appreciated two RIT athletes who recently visited her class, Tyler Ramotar, a baseball player and third-year new media marketing major from Burnt Hills, N.Y., and Andy Fleckenstein, a soccer player and fourth-year new media marketing major from Victor, N.Y.
“A lot of these kids don’t have a male role model to look up to,” Visconte said.
Sitting on chairs much too small for them, the RIT students gave high-fives to children who found matching alphabet letters on puzzle blocks.
“These kids mean the world to me,” said Jess Kramer, an RIT basketball player and fourth-year business management major from Fayetteville, N.Y. She spent her time reading with a small group of students. Many of the young children hugged the RIT students as they left for the day.
“Goodbye, Miss Jessica,” one student said.
“See-ya RIT,” another student yelled as the RIT students walked down the hallway.
RIT faculty and staff are becoming major donors to the Rush-Henrietta Area Food Terminal’s Adopt-A-Family Program, donating and distributing food and gifts to families in need in December. Last year, RIT was responsible for adopting 31 of the 63 families on the list seeking assistance, providing them with food, toys and gift cards. Some families had as many as 12 individuals.
“Every year, the needs of the community are met to a large degree by RIT,” said Meredith Smith, associate vice president for Government and Community Relations, which oversees the program for RIT. Departments within RIT adopt families on the list, learn what their adopted family needs, then donate and deliver the food, toys or gift cards.
Smith said it takes “very little work” to drum up donations — basically two campus-wide email messages — and “the donations just pour in.”
“Some RIT faculty and staff get to know the families they are serving and we find out that many of these families have recently lost a spouse or have been laid off from work. These families, our Henrietta neighbors, are incredibly grateful. It’s very emotional,” Smith said.
Qualifying families within the Rush-Henrietta School District contacted the food terminal with their wish lists. For some, it was the first time they had ever sought assistance.
“I don’t know what we would have done without RIT,” said Eileen Clark, coordinator of the Rush-Henrietta Area Food Terminal. “RIT helped a total of 64 adults and 74 children this year. If RIT didn’t help us, we would have had a problem. We wouldn’t have the money to go out and buy all that.”
Smith expects participation to grow each year.
“RIT is not an isolated island,” she said. “We know we sit within the town of Henrietta and we care about this community.”
United Way is the most familiar charity supported by RIT students, faculty and staff. More than $2.1 million has been raised in the RIT United Way campaign in the past five years. The goal for this year’s campaign, which ends April 4, was $400,000.
Last year, RIT ranked 8th out of 800 organizations for total dollars contributed to the United Way of Greater Rochester, and RIT has the highest average gift per donor than any other local college or university.
United Way is also a popular beneficiary of fraternities and sororities at RIT throughout the year. In 2012, RIT students were recognized by United Way for “extraordinary fundraising achievement.” Students have raised nearly $74,000 in the past three years for United Way, said Lynn Rowoth, RIT’s director of Special Events and Conferences.
A call for service
Being a member of RIT’s ambulance corps is volunteer work in itself. But 10 RITA members also volunteer in neighboring fire and EMS agencies, including Henrietta, Chili, Brighton and Gates.
Two examples are Chris Soufleris, a second-year biomedical sciences major from Irondequoit, N.Y., and Zach Roberts, a fourth-year criminal justice major from Honeoye Falls, N.Y. Both also give their time as volunteer firefighters for the Chili Fire Department Company No. 4, just across the Genesee River from the RIT campus.
“After joining RIT Ambulance, I realized I loved it, but I wanted more,” Soufleris said. “I wanted to reach beyond the college campus and expand the demographics I served.”
Roberts, who is chief of operations for RIT Ambulance, volunteers because he likes to help others. “I like making a difference in people’s lives. And it’s always different and exciting. There’s never a normal day.”
Community service doesn’t mean you have to leave campus. Construction of the Gene Polisseni Center will be winding down this summer, but in its shadows, volunteers from RIT will still be digging in the ground. They will be tending to the RIT Community Garden, a place where students, faculty, staff or alumni can plant flowers or food for themselves, or others.
Part of RIT’s Better Me program, the garden began about six years ago. One year, more than 800 pounds of produce grown in the garden—tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, garlic, beans, squash, berries, cucumbers, basil and lettuce— was donated to Foodlink, said Jennifer Horak, a coordinator in Access Services.
Seeds get planted in the College of Science’s greenhouse in mid-March, but the planting in the garden is done around the end of May.
“It’s great getting out there in the sunshine, having organic produce, and it is giving back to the community,” Horak said. “It’s an opportunity for any groups or individuals to do some community service, and it’s great for those who don’t have transportation.”
Other recent ways RIT gives back to the community:
On Wednesday afternoons, a yellow school bus pulls up to RIT’s Global Village. More than a dozen students from Rochester’s Edison Tech High School file out to take classes from volunteer RIT faculty members in science, math, engineering, computer science or graphic arts, and meet one-on-one with RIT student mentors. The program, called Mind, Body and Soul, is in its fourth year. It is led by assistant RIT assistant baseball coach R.D. Long, with support from Harvey Palmer, dean of the Kate Gleason College of Engineering, and a partnership with Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection.
Long says the program was designed to help high school students qualify for scholarships offered by RIT.
“The kids are just doing outstanding,” Long said. “One of the trends of students you see in 7th, 8th and 9th grades, when the grades start going down, they never recover. These students’ grades have gone up.”
Clarence, one of the visiting high school seniors, estimates he’s visited RIT at least 50 times through Mind, Body and Soul. He has applied to RIT, his first choice of college, where he wants to complete his undergraduate degree before going to a medical school and becoming a nephrologist.
During a recent visit, the students attended the Toyota Lab in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering to learn about assembly lines. There, lecturer John Kaemmerlen assigned the students to positions along the assembly line to put wheels on skateboards. They were timed and evaluated where backups occurred. Changes were made to the workloads, and they increased productivity 40 percent for the next round of assembly.
“We want the line to be balanced, so everybody has the same amount of work to do,” Kaemmerlen said. “It’s not work harder. It’s work smarter.”
The students then met with RIT students who helped with their homework and answered questions about college.
Nicholas Schwind, a fourth-year applied statistics major from Newark, N.Y., is Clarence’s mentor.
“It just seemed like a good thing to do, to help the community,” Schwind said. “ And it definitely gives me a good feeling to create that personal connection. Our interaction doesn’t have to end when he leaves this classroom.”
Schwind said he’s told Clarence he can call him or text him whenever he’d like to.
“He seems really motivated and driven,”Schwind says. “His thirst for knowledge is really encouraging. He doesn’t have any limitations.”
The 29 brothers of RIT’s Sigma Nu fraternity have been assisting players in a wheelchair rugby team, teaching sign language to members of the Rochester Police Department and taking dogs and cats out of their cages at the Scottsville Animal Shelter for exercise and human interaction.
“Sigma Nu chapters are well known for giving back to the community nationwide,” said Blake Nitko, RIT chapter president. Sigma Nu members volunteered nearly 600 hours last year, the most community service than any other RIT sorority or fraternity.
Nitko, an advertising/public relations major from Fenton, Mo., also enjoys spending time with the animals. “A lot of people don’t even know this shelter is here, and we can really help out.”
Thomas Chappell, a civil engineering major from Wayland, Mass., says volunteering helps him relieve stress, and reminds him of his dog back home. “I enjoy it.”
Several members of the fraternity visit the shelter each Wednesday, and often are joined by friends in the Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority at RIT.
About 25 students in Jane Amstey’s Sustainable Community Class last fall worked on four community-based research projects, ideas that came with a partnership with the City of Rochester.
Architecture graduate students studied construction in Rochester’s northeast neighborhood to identify buildings with historical significance; students assisted the Westside Farmer’s Market, interviewing vendors and customers to help evaluate the 2013 season; and other students assisted the Friends of the Public Market to help develop healthy, nutritious and affordable foods.
In February, 11 Ebony Club members from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf went to the Foodlink warehouse in Rochester to sort 31 pallets of food and drinks for distribution.