Vassar has a reputation among students for being in a so-called bubble–that is, for being isolated from the community which surrounds it–despite its physical presence within Arlington and close proximity to the city of Poughkeepsie. To say the campus is totally insulated from its surroundings, however, is to ignore the College’s efforts in recent years to reach out to the Poughkeepsie community and beyond.
One such project is Community Works, a philanthropic campaign that has donated over $1 million to 50 not-for-profit organizations in Poughkeepsie and the greater Hudson Valley since its inception. Vassar originally launched Community Works in 2001 as an outreach alternative to the local United Way campaign, which funds the Boy Scouts, after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Scouts’ plea to continue excluding gay men from leadership positions within the organization.
Last year the project contributed over $72,000 in grants to 11 organizations. Recipients included an LGBTQ+ education network, afterschool programs for at-risk students and the Domestic Violence Services in Dutchess County. This year, the goal is to raise $70,000, which will all be donated to about ten organizations.
A significant portion of Community Works’ grant money comes from current Vassar employees who agree to deductions from their monthly paychecks to fund the campaign. Vassar’s faculty is shrinking, however, and therefore Community Works may have to turn to other sources–such as individual dorms and student organizations–in order to bolster its coffer. Interim Chair of Community Works and Interim Director of Field Work Nicholas de Leeuw encouraged students to step up again this year, commenting, “Campus organizations and dorms have put together fundraising events that have been really helpful, they really have an impact, and we would welcome the TAs or the THs to do that too. And if any student organization or dorm wanted to do that, I and other members of the committee would help them any way I could.”
Nominations for the 2017 grant recipients, which can be filled out online or mailed in, are due on Friday, Sept. 23, so de Leeuw and his team are gearing up for the upcoming review process. Anyone can nominate an organization for a grant, whether they are involved with that specific organization or not. Community Works welcomes any suggestions, but the nomination form indicates that past submissions and recipients have focused on issues such as hunger, homelessness, youth empowerment, the environment, domestic violence, child abuse, local arts and LGBTQ+ services.
After Friday, de Leeuw and the rest of the committee will get together to investigate each organization’s legitimacy before deciding whether or not to lend their support. The 2016 committee was comprised of a wide range of faculty members and employees, whose diverse experiences and backgrounds allow for thorough consideration of an equally varied set of nominations. Some of last year’s committee members were Director of Media Relations and Public Affairs Jeffrey B. Kosmacher, Associate Professor and Chair of Education Erin McCloskey, Central Dining Chef’s Helper Darrin Weaver and Director of Accessibility and Educational Opportunity and Moorhead Learning Specialist MaryJo Cavanaugh.
This is the first thing that makes Community Works unique among philanthropic organizations. It is small, led by people who work in concert with those who benefit from these grants, creating a sense of community and familiarity.
When the recipients are announced–usually right before Vassar’s October break–they receive grants with no strings attached. This is the second element that makes Community Works unique. Other, larger donors require detailed reporting from grant recipients about exactly how they spend time and money. Crime Victims Program Coordinator for Family Services Kathy Peluso explained how time consuming this can be. “We get most of our funding from the Office of Victim Services in Albany; it’s like 700,000 dollars a year and without them we wouldnít be here. But they require a lot of documentation of everything,” she explained. “Every moment, every 15 minutes of our time. And it has to all equal the eight hours, seven hours I work, or nine hours, whatever it happens to be that day. So it’s a lot of documentation and that’s a big part of the job. Community Works grants require none of this, they don’t need to. Due to thorough vetting during the nomination process, Community Works is able to trust the people they support. Recipients have already proven themselves.” De Leeuw agreed that the decision process should be sufficient to judge the recipients’ goals and intentions, and further monitoring should not be necessary. “[The grants should] be like money falling out of the sky. They don’t have to do anything to get the money and they don’t have to do any reporting once they’ve got the money,” he remarked.
Several of the organizations and groups which receive Community Works funding are closely associated with one another. The Poughkeepsie Family Partnership Center, located in downtown Poughkeepsie, is a converted school building that now houses the offices of local community organizations, many of which Community Works has awarded grants. Across the street from the Center sits the Poughkeepsie Plenty Fresh Market trailer, the latest project by the Poughkeepsie Plenty Coalition, one of the 2016 grant recipients. Begun in 2010 as a collaborative effort with Vassar, the Coalition’s mission is to provide access to healthy, fresh food to city residents and work towards ending food insecurity in Poughkeepsie.
Food security and accessibility is one issue among a variety of social issues and causes to which the chosen programs and organizations are dedicated. Other 2016 recipients include the Spark Media Project, which supports programming for children with interest in the media arts; the River Haven Program of Hudson River Housing, devoted to helping runaway and homeless youth find housing, counseling and support in the city; and the education and advocacy group GLSEN Hudson Valley (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network). In an informational video posted on the Community Works webpage, GLSEN Hudson Valley Chapter Co-Chair Rob Conlon explained, “GLSEN’s work is important because students really need the support in schools to feel that they are safe in being who they are.” He described the resources the group was able to supply to schools all over the Hudson Valley with the funding from Community Works. “A program like Vassar Community Works, whether you give a dollar, whether you give a hundred dollars, makes a real impact for organizations like GLSEN Hudson Valley and all the organizations that the program supports. Because without those little pieces of change, there can be no big piece of change,” he contended.
Some groups have received grants multiple years in a row, such as R.E.A.L. Skills Network (Relationship-Empowerment-Affirmation-Leadership), which was created 2008 and has received funding each year from Community Works since 2010. Vassar students remain involved with this project on the personal level as well. “Every year, a Vassar fellow has been involved in R.E.A.L. Skills. This program was created by…a Vassar fellow, and every year after, a Vassar fellow has come to this program and helped this program grow, continually. It’s unbelievable,” explained R.E.A.L. Skills Director Tree Arrington in their informational video.
Students are not always aware of the opportunities available to them to engage more actively with their community. “[T]here are lots of things to do in Poughkeepsie. You can get involved with organizations like [Community Works recipients] through field work or volunteering,” de Leeuw attested. “But you know, the bubble is self-imposed. If you want to get out of the bubble…just get out of the bubble!” Vassar students can get involved with local nonprofits by becoming a Community Fellow, many of which are placed in programs that receive funding from the Community Works program.