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Community Fellows Spend Their Summer Working for Poughkeepsie Not-for-Profits and Gaining Invaluable Experience

Youth counselor Toby Sola ’14 helps children make paper mache projects at the Rural and Migrant Ministry.

During his first two weeks at his summer job, James Haxton ’16 answered phone calls, gathered data for a grant writer, updated his employer’s Facebook page, and played a role in a television commercial.

“I love the idea of working at a hands-on job, and I’m sure doing that here,” says Haxton, who is employed as a jack-of-all-trades at Children’s Media Project, a Poughkeepsie not-for-profit agency that teaches film, video, and photography skills to local teens. “Just seeing the enthusiasm at this place, the way it’s changing the lives of so many young people, is a great way to spend the summer.”

Haxton is one of 10 Vassar students enrolled this summer in the college’s Community Fellows Program, which provides full-time employees to not-for-profit and government agencies in the Poughkeepsie area. Now in its 16th year, the program matches the students’ skills with the needs of agencies. Some are providing assistance to low-income families and victims of domestic violence, while others are working with children at day camps, art studios, and community gardens.

James Haxton ’16 teaches valuable multimedia skills to local teens at the Children’s Media Project.

Peter Leonard, Vassar’s director of field work, says the program benefits the students and the college at least as much as it benefits the agencies. “Our students pitch in to help fulfill their agencies’ missions, while the agencies enrich our students’ education,” Leonard says. “The program also fortifies Vassar’s social bonds with the community.”

Full-time employees at the agencies say they appreciate the Community Fellows’ skills and enthusiasm. “Vassar students are always so engaged in whatever they’re doing,” says Mary Ellen Iatropoulos, education director for Children’s Media Project and a Vassar grad (Class of 2005) herself. Iatropoulos says she and others at the agency had been impressed with Haxton’s versatility.

“He’s done a lot of different things for us in a very short time,” she says. “One day, he even cleaned out the office refrigerator, and he did it with the same level of enthusiasm he does everything else. It’s good for undergraduates to learn about the diversity of tasks many of our jobs require, especially these days in the not-for-profit world.”

Allison Crook ’14 works as an educator at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project.

Like Haxton, Tobiah Sola ’14 says he’s enjoying the variety of tasks he’s performing as a youth counselor at Rural and Migrant Ministry, an agency that helps migrant farm workers and their families. Sola has spent some of his time lobbying for a bill in the state legislature aimed at helping to improve working conditions for migrants, but he’s also involved in mentoring a youth arts group. “A lot of the art work has a social action component, and being part of that has been empowering,” Sola says. “I’m taking the stuff I learned in my education classes at Vassar and putting it into practice. I’m learning a lot and having a good time doing it.”

Allison Crook ’14, who plans to write her senior thesis on world food issues, is also applying some of what she’s learned at Vassar to her summer job as an educator for the Poughkeepsie Farm Project. Crook manages three vegetable gardens—one at Vassar Farm, one outside a building in Poughkeepsie that houses several not-for-profit agencies, and another on the grounds of a local elementary school. She leads youth groups on tours of the gardens and explains the benefits of growing and eating fresh vegetables—a message she says can never be learned too early. “The other day, we had a group of two-year-olds come out to [Vassar] Farm, and they all had a good time,” Crook says.

Some of her visitors are easier to convince than others, Crook says. “Sometimes, when I lead a group out to a field to pick fresh vegetables, there’s some eye-rolling, but usually by the time we finish the project, everyone’s having fun,” she says.

—Larry Hertz