At Vassar College and the world at large, desires to engage in one’s community, confront its challenges and work to improve and refine current systems are insufficiently met with a lack or total absence of adequate funding. Yet for students, staff, administrators and faculty members of Vassar, the Vassar Good Neighbors Committee (VGNC) can help alleviate this dilemma. Founded in 2001 as the Frances D. Fergusson Vassar Good Neighbors Committee, this grant-giving organization seeks to connect Vassar to its hometown of Poughkeepsie by encouraging and exposing members of the College’s community to projects and partnerships in Poughkeepsie; relationships between these two groups are expected to strengthen. The fund’s mission statement reads, “These relationships should build the capacity of each community to flourish.”
Should any member of the Vassar community wish to partake in such an activity, the VGNC requires each applicant to detail the ways that their proposed project will benefit Poughkeepsie and demonstrate how the money will be efficiently utilized. Part of this application process hence obligates the prospective volunteer to choose the appropriately sized grant amongst the varying ones they award. Some of the smaller grants do not exceed either $500 or $1000, targeting either current or novel projects. A $3,500 grant is given each year after the committee unanimously chooses a specific direct service project. Finally, a $15,000 grant awarded in annual $5,000 increments, serves to solidify the link between a local non-profit and the Vassar community, indicating that the project’s activities will continue after the final financial gift.
With these varying grant amounts and ensuing opportunities, the VGNC boasts an eclectic group of projects. Past initiatives have seen service work concerning women’s mentorship, tutoring for English language learners (ELL), prevention and organization against house evictions, physical health and well-being, race and cultural issues, and several others. One initiative was that of the Audit Program with the Poughkeepsie City School District (PCSD), which permitted teachers in the Poughkeepsie community to enroll in Vassar courses and earn in-service credit at their schools. The VGNC’s involvement with the Rural and Migrant Ministry (RMM) also stands out. A three-year initiative, this project gave members of the Youth Arts and Youth Economic groups of the RMM to study social justice issues affecting their lives in new geographical locations such as Seattle, Alabama, D.C. and NYC. With its consistent, annual budget and evolving programs, the VGNC’s range of projects has reached several individuals, creating a lasting impact.
One of these figures is Sacha Pfeufer ’16, who served as the student liaison for the Clearwater and Nubian Directions (ND) youth from November 2015 to May 2016. This special ND program, known as YouthBuild, strives to prepare individuals aged 16-24 not currently in school, for jobs in construction, computer technology and other areas. Under the Clearwater Project, those from YouthBuild and also Dutchess Community College can attend workshops to gain more knowledge and experience in projects such as greenwater storm systems, watershed awareness and anti-pollution efforts. 2016’s main project involves students redirecting stormwater from a local house to a rain garden and advanced stormwater system, located at the ND training center. This collecting method is known as a Green Infrastructure (GI) stormwater system which boosts efficiency and care for the environment.
Pfeufer explained in an emailed statement, “The goal of the project is three-fold: it is to give Nubian-Directions-Youth experience in the construction of stormwater systems and permaculture gardens attached to houses in the City of Poughkeepsie, an attempt to strengthen ties between the Vassar community and the City, and an attempt to create a “green jobs pipeline” that would place graduates of the 6-9 month Nubian Directions’ Youthbuild program in environmental jobs.” The combined pedagogy and hands-on experience that this project offers gives these young students a consistent structure; the logical next step is for them to extrapolate what they’ve learned, transferring those communication and technological skills to a full-fledged career. “This is a really interesting project, and deserves to have a little more attention from the school,” wrote Pfeufer. He envisions even further progress and potential for the organization, which he left this past May after graduating.
Siennah Yang ’18 is another invested Vassar youth supported by the VGNC, who has been working with the nonprofit Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (RLC) since the beginning of her freshman year. This national organization aims to reduce food waste and food insecurity in communities by salvaging and donating excess food to local soup kitchens and shelters. Through such endeavors, Yang and RLC as a whole hope to render people more conscious about the excess food that exists in the community and to encourage combating food waste.
Yang has been a driving force in Poughkeepsie’s RLC chapter. She recalled in an emailed statement, “Starting a branch of RLC in the mid-Hudson valley was not easy, but [a] Good Neighbors Grant helped me with some of the expenses to expand our operations.” In just over 18 months, the ambitious student’s initially small venture has developed rapidly, recruiting 40 volunteers and serving over 10 towns in Dutchess and Ulster County. This past year and a half has witnessed the Poughkeepsie RLC “rescuing” over 1,000 pounds of flour and various food items from local wedding events and the Arlington Farmer’s Market. The local RLC’s substantial record in such a short time has inspired the creation of Vassar Food Rescue, a new pre-org dedicated to rescuing food from the Vassar campus, allowing students interested in the concept to become involved; anyonewho knows of leftovers around campus is encouraged to contact the org.
But that growth and opportunity is not limited to Vassar students. For the past two years, Tracy Wright-Mauer has been president of the Poughkeepsie Crew, a non-profit organization that aids the Poughkeepsie City school district rowing team. Wright-Mauer notes how this team is unique in that it attracts high schoolers from all different socioeconomic backgrounds, as there is no admittance fee. Yet without any incoming funds from the team members, Poughkeepsie Crew must turn to other sources in order to make equipment purchasing and food and housing at regattas possible. “Because many of our families are not able to donate or volunteer we rely almost entirely on the generosity of our community. If our organization did not search out funding, the Poughkeepsie Crew Team would not exist,” Wright-Mauer claimed. For the president, who has two children that are veteran members of the team, the generosity of organizations like the Good Neighbors Committee strikes close to home. The group’s influence reverberates through the many Poughkeepsie rowing team families, families who would be unable to financially support their athletes if it weren’t for this collaboration between Vassar and its community.
Other contemporary projects include collaborations between Vassar’s Urban Studies and Film Departments in creating a “Digital Tour of Poughkeepsie,” and a partnership with the Catherine Community Center’s children’s program. And what does VGNC’s involvement in this diverse array of projects mean? For most, these grants’ values far surpass the particular monetary amount. Pfeufer reflected, “The Good Neighbors Grant breathed new life into this important project as its funds dwindled,” revealing the ability “to generate meaningful and potentially transformative relationships between the City and [Vassar].” Katia Chapman ’12, who now works for the RMM, wrote, “I started at RMM as a Community Fellow funded by Vassar. Thank you for shaping my life too!” And for all Vassar students, the VGNC bears noteworthy impacts: it helps fund the VAST and VELLOP programs where many students tutor, the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, the Vassar Haiti Project and several other opportunities that encourage students to get involved and step out of their collegiate bubble.
Interested in applying to receive a grant from the VGNC? The deadline is this Friday, Oct. 7. Contact vassargoodneighbors[at]gmail.com or check out http://pages.vassar.edu/goodneighbors/ for more information.