Submitted on Tuesday, 12/6/2011, at 3:52 PM

December 2, 2011

Two years ago, Paul Sorrentino, director of religious life, was invited to the White House to take part in a conversation among college and nonprofit leaders from across the country about how to increase participation in community service and encourage interfaith engagement in the U.S. The discussion was a fruitful one, said Sorrentino, and it resulted in President Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge (ICSCC) for the 2011–12 academic year.

Sorrentino; Rabbi Bruce Bromber Seltzer, Jewish religious advisor; and Charri Boykin-East, senior associate dean of students and coordinator of academic support, brainstorm ideas during a November Campus Challenge event.

That challenge—which aims to increase social cohesion and social capital and address specific societal needs—has been accepted by Amherst. In May, the college agreed to participate in the initiative, with a diverse committee of students, faculty and staff leading the way.

“The Campus Challenge is a way for all of us at Amherst College to celebrate what we are already doing,” said Catholic Religious Advisor Chris Clark, adding that it is very much in keeping with Amherst’s motto and mission. “It will enable us to expand our expression of concern around poverty, hunger and interfaith engagement in the Amherst area, as well as dissipate the shadows around ‘us’ and ‘them’ and shed light on our best hopes for one another.”

The idea, as articulated by the organizers of the ICSCC and Obama himself, is to get people from different religious and nonreligious backgrounds to tackle community challenges together—“for example, Protestants and Catholics, Hindus and Jews, and Muslims and non-believers building a Habitat for Humanity house together,” the ICSCC’s website reads.

“American colleges, community colleges, universities, seminaries and rabbinical schools have often been at the forefront of solving our nation’s greatest challenges,” it continues. Therefore, “the White House is encouraging institutions of higher education to make the vision for interfaith cooperation a reality on campuses across the country.”

Sorrentino said Amherst’s “vision for interfaith cooperation” focuses specifically on the alleviation of hunger and poverty. The goal is to meet and surpass what he and the Campus Challenge Committee are calling the “75-10-10-25” goals: that 75 percent of Amherst College staff, faculty and students take part in the initiative; that 10 tons of food are gathered and $10,000 is raised for the Amherst Survival Center; and that 25 percent of participants have some sort of interfaith engagement. 

“I think these are very doable goals, considering how giving and active the members of this community are,” he said.

But if simple altruism isn’t reason enough to participate, there’s always the competition aspect of the challenge. All initiatives undertaken between May 1 of this year and April 30, 2012, will be evaluated by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the Corporation for National and Community Service. The White House will recognize the most exemplary activities in summer 2012.

What’s more, the organizers of one activity per semester will receive a $200 gift card from the Campus Challenge Committee to the store, restaurant or organization of their choosing.

“We just thought it would be nice to recognize one event in the fall and one in the spring,” said Sorrentino.

The "Fill a Truck" food drive vehicle will be parked at various locations around campus until the initiative ends Dec. 7.

The college’s first major Campus Challenge activity is the “Fill a Truck” food drive that ends Dec. 7. Through it, members of the community are being encouraged to drop off healthy, nonperishable food items at various sites on campus, including the Alumni Gym, the Keefe Campus Center, Converse Hall, the Cadigan Center for Religious Life, Frost Library, Chapin Hall and the Campus Service Center. These items will then be donated to the Amherst Survival Center in North Amherst.

In addition to the food drive, the Campus Challenge Committee has organized a lecture series addressing the issues of hunger and alleviation of poverty and is currently seeking ideas for other events in keeping with the goals of the challenge. Those interested in organizing activities should submit ideas to the committee by contacting any of its members, listed here.

Sorrentino hopes that students, faculty and staff will be creative about their planning and remember how good it feels to simply give back.

At a Campus Challenge informational event in November, Amherst Survival Center Board President Jan Eidelson recalled the college’s extraordinary gesture of opening the doors of Valentine Dining Hall in the wake of the Oct. 30 nor’easter and offering free meals to all members of the campus and local communities. Eating at the dining hall in the days following the storm meant sharing tables with students, faculty, staff and area residents.

Eidelson and her colleagues especially appreciated this, since staffers at the Survival Center know only too well the value in providing those in need with a hot meal and a place to warm up.

“Amherst College treated everyone who came to Valentine with dignity and compassion,” Eidelson said. “There was this recognition that we’re all in this community, and everyone was welcome. It meant so much to everyone there.”

It’s those kinds of interactions and feelings of goodwill that the Campus Challenge aims to facilitate, said Sorrentino. “This is part of the way we should be living,” he said. “It’s so needed now, and it’s something we all can do without a whole lot of effort.”