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With volunteerism on the rise nationally, Penn’s alumni programming has expanded beyond highball toasts and traveling lectures to include cleaning up parks and driving nails, creating new ways to engage with the old alma mater.

By Susan Lonkevich | Illustration by David Goldin

“Don’t step on the flowers!” Jack Hunter W’60 calls out a gentle reminder to four young helpers to avoid squishing the petunias, marigolds and delphiniums that await planting behind the cafeteria at West Philadelphia’s Drew Elementary School. 
    Taking a break from second grade, Tiffaney, Nilsa, Emmanuel and Xavier have grabbed child-sized shovels and slipped tiny green thumbs into oversized gardening gloves to work in the dirt alongside “Mister Jack,” a Philadelphia CPA, and several other adults, including “Mister Richard” Gibson W’60 and “Mister Jim” Mitchell C’60. They pull up weeds, do a little raking and squeal at the occasional worm.
    Alumni Weekend began a day early for about two dozen members of the Class of 1960, who met at Penn’s Civic House on May 18 and split up into smaller groups to plant flowers, read to kids at neighborhood elementary schools and help Habitat for Humanity repair an old house. For its 40th reunion, the Class decided to give something back to Penn by donating its time to the West Philadelphia community.
    “I was so glad to hear about this,” says Gibson, a Center City alumnus who admits to switching careers more often than he has shown up for Reunions. “Having been in grad school [studying psychotherapy] for a couple of years, I wasn’t really in the position to write a check as I would have liked to. But when I heard about the community-service day, I thought, what a great way to do some little thing for Penn.”

Danny Gerber (left), director of the Urban Nutrition Initiative, and Jim Mitchell C’60 get help from second-graders Xavier and Emmanuel finishing a flower bed at Drew Elementary School. Heather Kilmer, Civic House associate director, and Tiffaney plant flowers. Photography by Addison Geary.

More than half of the adults in the United States participates in volunteer work, according to a national poll, and this trend is reflected in the alumni programming of many universities, including Penn. Through projects like the one described above and a community-service program called PennCares, organized through the University’s regional alumni clubs, alumni are creating new ways to stay involved with their alma mater. 
    When attorney Joel Nied C’90 moved to Philadelphia three years ago to take a job at a local law firm, he wrote to Dr. Ira Harkavy C’70 Gr’79, the director of Penn’s Center for Community Partnerships, to find out if he could get involved as an alumnus in the center’s activities. He had read an article in the Gazette [“The West Philadelphia Story,” November 1997] about the University’s renewed interest in West Philadelphia and decided he’d like to be a part of creating positive urban change. “My name found its way over to Alumni Relations,” he recalls. “The next thing I know, I was in charge of a nationwide community-service project.” 
    The undertaking, now known as PennCares, was the inspiration of Elsie Sterling Howard CW’68, former president of the University of Pennsylvania Alumni Society. Howard says she had noticed “a big hole in our alumni programming,” in that the University had not been helping recent graduates who were interested in making their communities better places to live fit volunteer work into their busy lives.
    Nied began contacting regional club presidents and non-Penn-affiliated community-service organizations throughout the country to consider their options. “We started with what would be impossible. Then we narrowed it down to what was at least conceivable.” They decided to promote a series of one-day volunteer events over a two-month period each spring, hoping that as alumni talked to their friends around the country, the enthusiasm of one club would encourage other clubs to join in. This spring, the program ran in 14 cities.
    The details have largely been left up to the discretion of the individual groups. Boston’s club has held carnivals for underprivileged kids. Los Angeles-area alumni painted a gloomy construction barrier around City Hall one spring, and each year return to a local library to help children prepare full-costume dramatic skits based on stories they read. Atlanta graduates cleaned up a local park one year and, more recently, did repairs on elderly people’s homes.
    Hundreds of alumni have given their time to PennCares projects. “One of the exciting things about it,” Nied says, “is that not only are we helping our respective communities, but we’re helping the University. It helps people get in touch 
with Penn and bond with it in a way that may not traditionally have existed.” (Nied and two members of the Alumni Relations staff, Ellen Liebman C’93 and Jennifer Rizzi C’93, received awards through Penn’s Models of Excellence program for their work setting up PennCares.) 
    The community-service projects are open to all alumni, not just dues-paying members of the various regional clubs. “People who have never been to a Penn event come to these things and have such a great experience,” adds Courtney Spikes C’92, who until recently organized community service for the Southern California Alumni Club.
    Currents, the magazine published by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, noted in a recent article that a growing number of alumni organizations are adding community-service projects to their roster of more traditional social events. It cited examples from the University of Michigan, Clark University and the College of William & Mary, among others. The alumni effort coincides with a movement at Penn and many other universities to create or expand upon public-service programs in their curriculums and add community-focused centers to their campuses: 

  •  Tufts University received a $10 million grant from the founder of e-Bay, an alumnus, to launch its own College of Citizenship and Public Service.
  •  The Class of 1955 at Princeton University—inspired by a challenge from alumnus and civic activist Ralph Nader—
  • established the Project 55 Public Interest Program, which has so far placed almost 700 students in fellowships or internships geared toward public-service careers.
  •  Students who live in one dorm at western Maryland’s Frostburg State University earn $1,600 each in scholarships for completing 450 hours of community service and training.
  •  Civic House, which serves as a community-service hub at Penn, opened its doors on Locust Walk two years ago with the goal of “preparing students for their roles as citizens and leaders.” It will get some help with that objective from the Class of 1960, which, in addition to organizing the community-service day for Alumni Weekend, raised $1.15 million. Some donors have specified how their gifts must be used; of the rest, half will go to Civic House programs, the other half to scholarships for Penn students interested in community service.

    To some extent, this interest in community involvement has trickled down from the creation of national programs like AmeriCorps, says David Grossman, director of Civic House. “Alumni now have come of age at a time when civic engagement looks different than going to the Lions or Rotary clubs, or writing a check. It’s hands-on engagement.” Since the 1980s, he adds, “Students coming to Penn have had hands-on experience in high school, and have had the opportunity to experience it at Penn [where they can choose from dozens of service-learning courses across multiple disciplines],” so it’s not unusual for them to want to continue with community-service projects after graduation.

(From left) Richard Stollman W’60, Hudson “Pete” Scattergood W’60 WG’67, Ruth Baker Joseph CW’60, Harriet Luskin Hornick CW’60 WG’73 and Jane Twitmyer CW’60 help Habitat for Humanity fix up an old house at 49th and Stiles. Photography by Addison Geary.

Though PennCares concentrates its efforts in May and June, many of the University’s regional alumni clubs are extending their volunteer efforts throughout the year. Courtney Spikes says the Southern California club compiles listings of drop-in projects for alumni to consider when they have a spare weekend. “It helps if someone you know or an organization you trust can say, ‘Hey, we’ve checked out some opportunities for you and here are five good ones.’” She helped spread the word, for example, about a non-profit group called Reading to Kids, founded by Jonathan Tomlin C’89 two years ago. Ten Penn alumni who heard about the organization through PennCares showed up to read to children at an L.A. elementary school one weekend.
    Atlanta’s club prepared meals for homebound HIV patients before the holidays last December through Project Open Hand, at a time when the organization has difficulty lining up enough volunteers. Earlier this spring it teamed up with Dartmouth’s alumni club to help out at a food bank. And for its official PennCares event, the club helped the Atlanta Community Tool Bank with home repairs and painting projects at the homes of senior citizens and low-income residents. Community-service chair Pete Weimann EAS/W’92 says the events provide a great way for younger alumni who have recently moved to the fast-growing Atlanta area to meet people.
    Nied, community-service chair of Philadelphia’s club, is trying to start an ongoing teen-mentoring program in his area. He’d also like to see Penn’s alumni clubs team up more with alumni from other universities to make a greater difference in their communities.
    Typically, the turnout for PennCares events has been dominated by twenty-to-thirty-somethings. Elsie Howard says, “I think I see more of a commitment among the newer generation of alumni of wanting to physically personally enhance the communities where they live, in addition to being philanthropic. My generation hasn’t been so hands on.”
    But there have been some notable exceptions. When the Southern California club held one of its first community-service projects, Spikes says, a couple of older alumni showed up with their grandchildren, who are also Penn graduates. When the Metro New Jersey club helped sort, clean and pack up juice containers for distribution at the New Jersey Food Bank, a number of alumni brought their older children along to help. “It was a great thing for my kids to be exposed to,” says Maria Chu Ho W’81, club president.
    The Class of 1960 community-service day offers further proof that volunteerism has no age limits. Jerry Riesenbach W’60, a Philadelphia attorney and the co-chair of the Class reunion committee, observes that a significant proportion of his classmates were commuters who lived off campus and developed little connection to Penn. Even though his Class has broken fundraising records in the past, it bothers him that a majority of his classmates never participate. “Over the years,” he says, “I’ve heard people say, ‘The only time the University contacts me is when it wants money.’ When they developed Civic House and … the PennCares program, it occurred to me that maybe as a reunion event [a community-service day] might stimulate some interest from people who have not been active in the past and [encourage] alumni to participate in community service through the University.” 
    He reminded his classmates in a letter that it was soon after they graduated in 1960 that John F. Kennedy spoke those famous words: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
    Back at Drew Elementary School, it starts to rain, and stops. Then it rains harder. The garden gets planted anyway, adding a temporary splash of color to the neighborhood while helping support the Penn-affiliated Urban Nutrition Initiative, whose goal is to teach kids entrepreneurial skills and promote healthy eating habits by setting up community gardens and creating student-operated produce and flower stands. But these flowers are mostly annuals, raising the questions of who will be back next year to plant new ones and how effective a one-day service project can be unless it is followed up with something more enduring. 
    The next day, Civic House hosts a brunch to allow alumni to discuss how to continue their community involvement on a more meaningful level.
    “This day is terrifically significant,” noted Dr. Peter Conn, deputy provost and the Andrea Mitchell Professor of English who also serves as faculty adviser to Civic House. “Nothing quite like this has happened before at Penn, where a class has stepped forward and said, ‘We want, in a very organized way, to participate in [community service] and to make you part of our gift.’” Conn underscored the desire of class leaders and Civic House to see the one-day project evolve into a long-term relationship between alumni and Penn, as well as the surrounding community. “I think it’s strategically and ethically the right way to go.”
    Class President Art Saxon W’60 G’93 suggested working with Alumni Relations to get all the Reunion classes involved in community-service projects next year. Riesenbach posed the possibility of inviting alumni who live near Penn to volunteer their services year-round—at Penn’s various schools and centers—to help defray the costs of operating the University.
    Civic House also would like alumni involved in public-interest work or non-profit activities on the side to act as mentors, speaking to students about their experiences and helping to arrange job opportunities and internships for undergraduates, says Civic House’s Grossman. “It would be unrealistic to expect all [Penn graduates] to go into public-interest work, but if they go to Wall Street to be bankers, or become attorneys or physicians, and they can do so thinking of what their public civic role will be, that would be a very important thing.” 

How to get involved: Contact Civic House at (215)898-4831 or view its Web site at For information about PennCares, contact Joel Nied at <> or 215-963-5274.

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