When President Tom Gerety gave his commencement address to the Class of 1999, he discussed the “justness” of the Kosovo conflict and America’s responsibility in helping to reach a conclusion there. Gerety suggested that to have an Amherst education was to have the ability to deal with and take a stand on that and the many other complex issues with which we would be faced as we went forward in our lives, whether it be a multinational crisis or one next door. He finished this address by saying, “The world has need of you.”
Two years later, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, these words turned from rhetoric to solemn reality, not just for the class that heard them, but for all Amherst alumni. The Class of ’88 was particularly affected, as they learned that a classmate had lost a spouse in the World Trade Center’s North Tower. In the e-mail and telephone exchanges that followed, the most common feeling was powerlessness, a frustrated desire to take action that could make a difference. In the ensuing weeks, three members of the Class of 1988—Pauline Young Rush, Erica Stracher Fields and Jed Miller—began talking in more detail about what kind of action we could take. In New York City, Rob Longsworth ’99 joined our team of organizers.
This initial collaboration, with help and enthusiastic input from the Office of Alumni and Parent Programs, was the genesis of the Responding Together project, conceived as a way for alumni to respond collectively and constructively to the tragedies. Throughout the late spring and summer of 2002, Amherst alumni and their Williams counterparts in 10 locations around the country planned volunteer events for the second week of September. In total, more than 300 Amherst and Williams grads participated in Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco, Tucson, Washington, D.C. and Worcester, Mass.
Our hope now is that we can continue to expand this effort while finding a way to make community service a continuing part of the lives of all Amherst alumni. This collection of participants’ and nonparticipants’ comments is the first step toward what we hope will be an ongoing conversation about community service among the alumni community.
— J.M., R.L.
Illustration: Tim Lee, theispot.com
While studying at Amherst, my extracurricular activities were self-serving extensions of personal interest. Community outreach fell under a vague category of “ideological goals” rather than “personal interests.” Notably, the line between the two has crystallized into a more active state since graduation. Instead of writing papers about mothers on public assistance, I visit shelters and talk to women about strengthening their financial futures. As an alumni association, we introduce many opportunities for Amherst graduates to act out their ideologies more concretely. During last September’s project, we found that many D.C. community groups already had a loyal base of volunteers. We had to call a dozen places before we found activities for our cadre of 30. An enthusiastic group tackled Walter Pierce Park on Saturday, Sept. 14, to weed out trash and overgrowth from trails and a fence behind which we learned predators often hide. Sunday’s group took the Community Food Bank by storm, packaging more than two tons of food for distribution to community shelters and hot lunch programs. The director at the food bank explained how vital volunteers are to the Food Bank’s livelihood. In a year when corporate giving was at an all-time low, having people’s hands to lighten the load made the difference.
As idealists in an inequitable democracy, we are charged with filling the void more than once a year. Accompanying many volunteer events is a sense that more can and should be done. “Done-in-a-day” events are convenient means of patting ourselves on the back as active volunteers. The problem remains that very little is done in a day; there will be more for someone to do tomorrow. The tasks switch hands with minimal commitment. Does painting a school wall or weeding overgrowth only massage our consciences into believing that enough change has been made, at least for today?
A Vassar alumnus and I recently discussed hosting happy hours where young alumni could gather on the third Thursday of every month. I wondered later if alumni (of any age) would commit to assembling monthly for a community outreach event. As our ideals define us, so should our dedication to applying them.
— Allison Lee ’00, Washington, D.C.
When I moved to Austin, I decided to get involved in the community in a different way than simply meeting people of my own social, economic, educational, etc. background. I volunteered for Meals on Wheels, delivering lunches once a week to elderly and disabled people who can’t leave their homes. Each week my route changed, but I had some regulars who always gave me a dose of perspective. Mrs. Sims suffered from diabetes and liver disease, but managed to dole out a little wisdom each time I saw her. When it became apparent that I was pregnant two summers ago, Mrs. Sims warned me, “Remember, it’s not unusual for a child to want to use his mind once he figures out he has one.” Volunteering made me aware that there are people right around the corner who have bigger worries, or at least different worries, and who have both insight and wisdom to share.
Dave Block ’89 and I coordinated the Responding Together project in Austin, along with Aaric Eisenstein ’91 from Williams. We chose to volunteer at the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas, which distributes high-quality food and grocery products to a network of more than 340 human and social service partner agencies. More than 25 volunteers participated in the event, about a third from Williams and two-thirds from Amherst. Many alumni brought their children and spouses. Working together for four hours inspecting, labeling and packing 2,550 pounds of green beans provided an opportunity to meet and connect with people with fond memories of western Massachusetts now living in the Austin area. One alumna commented, “It’s about time we did something that matters.”
— Juli Berwald ’89, Austin, Texas
James Patchett ’02 and I worked with two Williams grads (Laura Moberg ’99 and Will Slocum ’99) to plan a beach-cleanup day. We partnered with a local organization called Coastsweep, which assigned us a beach and provided us with garbage bags and gloves. By making Carson Beach a safer place for families to relax and play, we all found a meaningful way to strengthen our shared community and to bring our Williams and Amherst communities together.
The college should definitely help organize community service events. It is a great way for alums to stay connected, and appeals to people who don’t want to attend fancy cocktail parties or go to happy hours, where the focus is on pleasing ourselves. I think that after having the opportunity to go to Amherst College and learning everything that I did there, I would be an awful person not to give some of my time to my community. However, I think everyone should find time for community service. Amherst just helped me to realize that.
— Sarah Short ’02, Boston, Mass.
As Erica Stracher Fields, Jed Miller and I e-mailed with our classmates [after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001], I was struck by two things: the desire of everyone to do something, and the profound importance of community. In a commentary I heard on NPR, activist and author Bill Shore called on all of us to redouble our efforts to strengthen our communities by serving others. Since the Amherst community is very important to me, I envisioned working locally with fellow graduates as my classmates worked with other alumni in their own communities. If we could coordinate our efforts on a single day and create volunteer opportunities across the country, I thought, the results could be astounding. Not only would we have found a positive way to commemorate those who died on Sept. 11, we would also be celebrating community locally while connecting with each other nationally.
— Pauline Young Rush ’88 (Responding Together organizer), Tucson, Ariz.
On Oct. 19, 2002, 12 Amherst alums joined with other volunteers to brighten up K-4 elementary school PS 108 in the Bronx with murals and a completely reshelved library. The event was part of a city-wide school clean-up day organized by NYCares.
Volunteer-driven efforts are most successful when the volunteers have a connection to the community. A desire to remain involved with the painting project after the day’s end was voiced by many of the Amherst volunteers. Christine Moore ’81, who filled a blank wall with a gorgeous still life, said, “My only regret is that I was unable to organize a video crew to welcome the children that Monday morning.”
Not everyone has the same interests and talents, but I believe the Amherst community is blessed with members who can make their world a better place. We can promote our Amherst identity through service to the community, and one way to start would be with a recurring series of single-event volunteer opportunities, organized quarterly and participated in generously. I doubt we’ll find a single activity that fits every volunteer; but I do think there is a critical mass of us to make our mark as concerned, interested citizens. As they say, every little bit helps.
— Eileen McCullough ’98, New York, N.Y.
In December 2001, I was asked to write a few scenes for a Sept. 11 benefit show. The money raised would go to a group of volunteer psychiatrists specializing in helping people get through the trauma of disaster.
I’ve done volunteering before, in the New York City Public Schools Learning Leaders program as a tutor and on a few occasions with the Amherst New York Association, at children’s hospitals and a SRO hotel in Times Square. Those were all really satisfying experiences and I’m really glad I did them, but this was different: taking what you do every day and channeling it into something to help others. I’ve been a writer for a long time. Lots of ups (my first play, Album, long run, Pulitzer Prize finalist) and downs (running out of money and having to get real jobs), but I never had an experience like this before. Usually I take my time with scripts, but this one came out so fast. The few scenes grew into a full-length play of 21 scenes called New York about people dealing with the emotional aftermath of Sept. 11. All of us who worked on the show—actors, producers, directors, stage managers; all volunteers—worked nonstop. It all paid off in the performance, which was beautiful and touching, with a great audience response. All the proceeds went to Disaster Psychiatry Outreach, helping them continue with their great work.
When I saw that Responding Together was planning a series of events the week of Sept. 11, 2002, I got in touch with Rob Longsworth ’99, and we put together a performance of the play at the Williams Club that week in September. It went so well, with a cast that included a New York fireman who worked search and recovery at ground zero, and audience members who suffered personal trauma and lost loved ones that day were somehow comforted and healed by seeing the play. Other performances have happened since, and more are being planned.
— David Rimmer ’71, New York, N.Y.
After Sept. 11, I think people who would normally donate money, not time, wanted to be more hands-on, to get involved in their communities and help out in a more meaningful way. I think “elite” society felt particularly helpless. Lawyers, stockbrokers and professors weren’t needed in the immediate rescue and recovery efforts. Even the demand for doctors, unfortunately, was much less than anticipated. It was the firefighters, police, construction workers, steelworkers and rescue-dog handlers who were most able to give of their knowledge and expertise.
Because I wasn’t one of these people (I knew they wouldn’t need me to write a science curriculum!), and because I live in Boston, I felt particularly helpless. I know when New Yorkers stood in the streets and cheered for rescue workers going to and from ground zero, part of the reason was that they didn’t know what else to do.
The Amherst community was a perfect place to brainstorm ideas and enlist those who were interested but didn’t know how to help. As others have said, I would be much more likely to spend time with other alumni on a community effort than in a bar in Boston.
— Erica Stracher Fields ’88 (Responding Together organizer), Boston, Mass.
My participation after Sept. 11 was quite minimal, I must say. Maybe if there were a more welcoming forum for volunteerism, I would have been more persistent; something where more people I knew were involved, such as alumni. Overall, I think there is no specific best-practices approach that will engage everyone. I definitely think that doing something where you feel you are giving all you can is most important, and there should be no standards to judge how much volunteering is enough. As long as the intention is sincere, it counts.
I think the moral obligation falls on everyone’s shoulders, but coming from an academically elite community, where financial contacts are strong, makes it more important for Amherst alums to at least try. What I have realized from my volunteering experience is that, at the end of the day, even the best ideas are difficult to bring to fruition without an adequate level of financial support. I think the Amherst alum brings to the table this unique hybrid of liberalism, sincerity and, yes, oftentimes access to power-networking bases willing to financially support project initiatives. You need a broad representation of views, accounting for people from different backgrounds, with varying experiences to truly arrive at an effective conclusion. However, you also need to provide the material component to take this plan into action.
— Alice Faibishenko ’99, New York, N.Y.
I felt immense pride when I learned that fellow alumni from Williams and Amherst were coming together to commemorate the first anniversary of Sept. 11 by serving their communities as volunteers. I was proud because I recognized the bias toward action I had known while a student at Williams, where learning was as much about doing as anything else. Sometimes I worry that as time distances us from our campuses we retreat into our private endeavors and leave behind community service and public life. My hope is that an annual Responding Together will become a re-introduction to service, where thousands of people who have in common spending a short time studying in the hills and valleys of Massachusetts recommit themselves to investing in their communities throughout the year. Volunteering during the week of Sept. 11, Thanksgiving or Christmas is important, and needed, but our communities also desperately need volunteers the other 49 weeks of the year.
I have found when I begin to volunteer somewhere the service is about helping someone or lending a hand to an organization. But I’m receiving as much or even more than I’m giving. For example, one night each month I stay at a homeless shelter operated by The Partnership for the Homeless, where I’m director of community relations and volunteer programs. Over the months, I’ve learned something important: how to say, “You’re welcome.” I was great at “It was nothing” and “It’s my pleasure,” but for some reason I was awful at accepting thanks. It’s rude not to accept thanks, especially when that’s all someone can offer. “Thank you” reminds us who we actually gave the help for, and “you’re welcome” is our chance to end with the focus there, beyond ourselves.
— John Spear W ’92, New York, N.Y.
When Rob Longsworth ’99 asked me to contribute to this article, I asked him these questions.
As a result of the Responding Together effort to commemorate Sept. 11, has anyone (and I mean anyone, Amherst undergraduate, Amherst graduate, faculty or administration):
Volunteered for military service?
Volunteered to be of assistance to the men and women in the active military and reserves?
Volunteered to bring military speakers and/or military recruiters to Amherst College?
Volunteered to support U.S. governmental or nongovernmental organizations involved in the military response to the terrorist attack on the United States?
Rob has told me that to the best of his knowledge, the answer to all of these questions is “no.”
I am not surprised. Since ROTC was kicked off the Amherst campus before I arrived as a freshman in 1956, Amherst collectively has looked down its nose at the military.
When Amherst’s President Gerety called for Americans to shed blood and die if necessary to fight the butchers of the Balkans, he was the first Amherst president to call for Americans to make the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of freedom in my memory (and oh, has he been silent on this point since Sept. 11 when it comes to butchers in Baghdad and Al Qaeda).
Perhaps Responding Together will show a different side of Amherst a year from now. I’ll welcome it, but I won’t be holding my breath.
— Dick Hubert ’60, Rye Brook, N.Y.
The Responding Together effort benefited several of our housing sites for the formerly homeless by providing volunteers to serve meals and provide company and comfort for our tenants at specially organized events to commemorate Sept. 11. Beyond the impact of that day, the project reinvigorated our volunteer program at Common Ground, and led to the creation of a junior advisory council to build and guide our community of volunteers. We are thrilled that many Amherst alumni are part of this ongoing effort, and that Responding Together was the start of long-term relationships, not merely a one-day event. We’re grateful to have been part of it.
— Roseanne Haggerty ’82, New York, N.Y.
I signed up to help establish the junior advisory council at Common Ground in New York. I knew I’d be part of an inspiring organization and reacquaint myself with Amherst pals. I also knew I’d meet interesting volunteers, tenants and staff members. The surprise was that I reconnected with an even older friend, from high school. Later in the fall, as we stood side by side in the Prince George tea room serving Thanksgiving dinner, I realized it was the first time we had worked on a project since chemistry class almost 10 years ago.
I’m glad that I finally figured out how to cram regular volunteer work into my life.
The thing is, it shouldn’t have taken me so long to find such a program. Improving our communities doesn’t always need to be done in broad strokes. A case in point: The day of the antiwar rally in New York City, I took the subway downtown to see a friend. A group of frustrated protesters boarded the train, and a couple sat down next to me. The man grumbled loudly about the ineptitude of the police, the mayor and the deterioration of the world as a whole. The very next stop, an elderly couple entered our car. He was dependent on a cane and leaned heavily on his wife, who was as strong as a sparrow. They gripped the handrails in front of the grumbling man and woman, who did not offer their seats. I stood to let the gentleman sit, and a seat opened up on the next stop for his wife.
I admire those who are passionate about their views, who fully believe that their voices can change the world, but it’s also worth remembering that we can improve our neighborhoods, big or small, by just paying attention to what’s in front of us and acting. Sometimes, it’s as easy as standing up.
— Molly Lyons ’97, New York, N.Y.
Responding Together Forum
This forum has closed. The opinions expressed in this forum are those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect those of Amherst college.
September 2, 2003
Paying a Debt
How many Amherst alums have faced the Indians on the issue of Lord Jeffery Amherst’s exploits on the frontier? “To the Frenchman and the Indians he didn’t do a thing, in the wilds of this wild country,” unless you count giving the Indians small-pox-infected blankets under the guise of helping them during the winter.
I gave flesh for Amherst; actually not for old Lord Jeff but for the benefit I received from the name and credential, given that most Native Americans know the Amherst name from the pioneer of biological warfare (the small-pox blankets). Since starting my public-interest law firm in 1998, I have devoted 75 percent of my available time to pro bono work, including work at the Pine Ridge Reservation. This summer solstice, I participated in a Lakota sun dance (my fourth, ending my four-year commitment), and I gave flesh in ceremony. The sun dance leader, a Mohawk, is a descendent of the people killed by Lord Jeffery Amherst’s blankets. It was a privilege to acknowledge how much benefit I have received from that Amherst name and credential and to pay back some of that benefit to a Mohawk hand.
While I’m not suggesting that every Amherst alum give flesh to the Mohawks, I am suggesting that each of us figure a way to pay something back (or forward) to the Native American people, because we are associated with (and have benefited from) the Amherst name and reputation, which is in some way based on the feats of colonialism and genocide.
David Frankel ’87
August 15, 2003
Since I am a professional in the community relations department of a Fortune 500 firm here in Houston, you would expect me to make a strong case for community involvement—both on a corporate level as well as an individual one. As you might expect, I do.
For the past five years I have been associated with Holocaust Museum Houston, where I serve as a docent and tour guide twice a month. As such, I have the opportunity of taking middle- and high-school-age groups of students through the museum and examining with them the issues related to European history from 1933-1945. As important as an historical analysis is, the real purpose of a museum tour is the understanding that those same issues are present in the world today and that each person has the responsibility to do his or her part to make certain that they are addressed and stopped. The work provides immense personal satisfaction, and the reaction from the young men and women is almost always positive.
Not surprisingly, Amherst College is well represented at Holocaust Museum Houston. In addition to my service as a docent, Andy Achenbaum '68 is a member of the board of directors and Ben Samuels '89 is also a significant volunteer there.
There are literally countless ways individuals can make a difference, and no one is too busy to do their part. Part of the Amherst experience for me was the realization that while relatively few of us will ever be in a position to change the course of world events, each one of us can surely make a difference. Our collective effort will be a power to be reckoned with, in direct as well as subtle ways.
Jack Hodson '70
July 7, 2003
My career in volunteerism actually was initiated during my sophomore year at Amherst. A classmate invited me to go on a work weekend with the members of the Christian Association. We worked hard, along with young men and women from other schools, to improve the physical conditions of an interfaith, interracial camp near Winchester, N.H. I was very moved by speaking with the camp’s chaplain, who represented the Harlem minister James Robinson, the founder and developer of this ministry for boys and girls from Harlem. In fact, I was so inspired by that experience that I returned to several work weekends over the remaining years at Amherst and served as counselor there for three summers.
I continue to feel that I have been graced with a privileged status in the overall society and that it is incumbent on me to share my talents with those people less fortunate than I. Being semi-retired from my last position as a public-health physician, I find my volunteer work being directed toward homeless persons, medically indigent persons and foster children who have been removed from abusive or neglectful parents.
I do believe that my volunteer efforts make a difference in people’s lives. While it does not really matter if I see results of my efforts, frequently I am aware that I have had a positive impact on the lives of those people I serve. I can sum up my feelings about my volunteer activities as “compassion in action.”
I believe that opportunities for volunteering should be made available to students at Amherst, perhaps at a student-to-student level, with faculty and/or administrative support of the activities. A natural outgrowth of that service would be alumni continuing to volunteer. Doing it corporately with other Amherst alumni (as well as other people, of course) might be an effective witness to the larger U.S. audience about the great importance of volunteerism in our society.
Thomas C. Washburn ’53
July 7, 2003
I was delighted to read about the Responding Together project. Constructive action is the best way to react to a tragedy such as the events of Sept. 11. We defy violence! I can only hope that such enthusiastic volunteerism will stick for the long term.
I have always volunteered in some form or another. I view it as paying my rent in the world, a duty (what a quaint notion!) that comes automatically with the privileges I have enjoyed: good health, a loving family, a rich and peaceful country, good education, dumb luck. I don't have the kind of money that would make much difference to a struggling not-for-profit organization, but I do give my time.
I was active with various scientific organizations for many years, but recently have concentrated on my children's schools. I choose causes based on my familiarity with the organization and the issues; effort and passion can be mis-invested as much as money. In part I work for the good of my profession and my children, in part from self-interest, but, as my husband wryly points out, a few lines in my resume do not justify the hours I put in.
For the past three years I have been the president of the board of directors of the Amherst Montessori School. The all-volunteer board is charged with the oversight and long-term direction of a school for young children from over 90 families. In this well-loved college town, there is a high demand for early childhood education, but only one public preschool program, leaving the rest to not-for-profit private schools such as ours. On two campuses, we have three classrooms for 3-to-5-year-olds, an elementary classroom for grades one to four and a toddler room.
The Montessori families are a diverse lot, ethnically and economically; we have large proportions of student parents, single parents and recipients of various forms of financial aid. Every year the board must come up with a budget, set tuition and try to provide as many scholarships as possible, while keeping up with the bills. Fundraising is an increasingly important piece of the board's business as we attempt to plug the holes and, with luck, pull ahead to our ambitions.
As the town of Amherst grows, the Montessori school is growing too. I hope that my efforts with the board have at least laid some groundwork for the next phase of expansion or set into motion the next wave of action. We hope to see a new building someday, with playing fields and facilities for new programs. Probably I will no longer be with the organization when they break ground, but I hope I'm around to celebrate. More than almost any other organization I have worked with, I have found the AMS community of preschoolers and their families to be warm, cohesive and friendly. But it is common that volunteers feel they get back more than they give.
Anne Walton ’81E
July 7, 2003
I do not want this to sound as though I’m bragging. Volunteerism is a way of life, and has been to me since before my college days. However, I do take some umbrage at the comments of Dick Hubert ’60, for I have risked my life for many years as a volunteer. No, not in the military, but in technical mountaineering search and rescue and, equally if not more importantly, as the organizer, trainer and fire chief of two volunteer fire departments, one in Colorado, the other in New Mexico.
I say to Dick, whom I remember but vaguely, there already is a “different side to Amherst,” and I doubt that I am its only representative. It may not be seen as a sudden desire to join the military, but may well have been and continue to be expressed in other meaningful ways of helping those in need of help. Firefighters and other emergency-response personnel are injured and die in the line of duty, and many in this group of people are graduates of colleges and universities.
John Liebson ’61
Santa Fe, N.M.
July 3, 2003
Yes, I volunteer time in my community, and have for over 50 years. Yes, I feel as though my efforts make a difference. I believe that results come sooner and better if one does not seek the credit for a project. I volunteer because I think I should, and I hope what I give makes a constructive difference. The distinction does not matter.
Being a graduate of Amherst does not/did not play into why I have done what I have done and am doing. My time in the Navy and my graduate education were much greater contributing factors. If anything, I am convinced that Amherst and most private colleges have lost their way when it comes to serving our society. It is not a privilege to attend Amherst; Amherst and all colleges owe it to our society to serve by being open to all, not merely the children of the wealthy. Please don't give me that stuff about [need-]blind admissions. $35,000 per year divides too much of our society into those few who can afford it and those who can’t or won’t. The higher educational future of our society lies with the public colleges and universities. Our leaders come increasingly from the public ranks, since the quality of teaching and the nature of curriculum are not essentially different. Yes, the facilities may be greater in the privates, but that's all. I think that colleges like Amherst could do a real public service by reducing their costs so that entrance is as open as it was when I was an applicant in 1942. All this was so much healthier 60 years ago.
Daniel Dick ’46
June 12, 2003
In my view, the questions about volunteerism that introduce this article narrowly define the subject. I would like to expand the definition of volunteerism to include positive acts that every alumna and alumnus can take to aid the fight against terrorism and help heal a wounded body politic. Here's a small sample: If you're running a business, volunteer to hire reservists and keep them on the payroll and their benefits intact when they're called up. If you're a lawyer, volunteer to run the renegade lawsuit chasers in your profession out of business and clean up a legal establishment which is a drain on the economy and a national disgrace. If you're a physician, volunteer a part of your time to treating the uninsured and, while the rest of us are trying to get the lawyers off your back so you won't feel the need to go out and strike against your patients again, volunteer to run the incompetent doctors out of your profession. If you're in the investment business, volunteer to run the crooks and the cheaters out of your profession, and don't stand idly by while American capitalism is undermined by corporate thieves and tax accountants determined to cut corners so that only the honest and patriotic pay their fair share of taxes. If you're a member of a faith where the leadership is abusing children, preaching bigotry or promoting some other foul sin, volunteer to purge your faith of those who would undermine the morals and spirit of your fellow practitioners and the general public. If you are moved to go into public service, volunteer not to leverage your office to seek a hugely lucrative position when you return to the private sector. Try to remember that true public servants serve the public and not their own pocketbooks. The list goes on and on, but in my view, that kind of volunteer effort could really change American society for the better.
Dick Hubert '60
Rye Brook, New York