700 Fairfield University volunteers aid hungry, homeless


The 1998 Hunger Cleanup, held on April 28, involved the energies of over 700 students, faculty, alumni, and administrators. University volunteers traveled to 44 sites to perform a variety of tasks for agencies and organizations that had requested help. According to this year's co-chairs - seniors Scott Middlemass, Laura Taylor and Kristi Reidway and sophomore Jenn Mazzo - the eager volunteers raised over $6,000 and had a great time doing so.

For Carolyn Rusiackas, the campus minister who has coordinated the award-winning project for the last five years, the day was one of superlatives: "The students were an absolute inspiration in their dedication and their genuine concern for the needy. They were out to make a difference not only through the immediacy of the day's projects, but through the potential for more significant social change. Students look at needs differently once they've experienced a situation involving those in need. It opens their eyes."

The people featured here represented the best of Fairfield and its Jesuit mission during the Hunger Cleanup.

Tackling a different kind of field
Picture a busload of 90 hulking football players unloading themselves at an inner-city park. Now picture them walking around, garbage bags in hand, picking up bottles, tires, discarded fast-food wrappers, and cigarette butts. And picture them, after transforming a Bridgeport park on a warm spring day, going further into the neighboring streets to clean them up too.

"You should have seen the looks on the neighbors' faces," wrote Bob Halsted, president of the Washington Park Association afterwards, "when 90 giant football players got off the bus and out of cars on Saturday. The neighborhood kids were really impressed and came out to help. They formed an attachment right away to the players."

"It was a wonderful thing," says Coach Kevin Kiesel, "to take the whole team on a community service project. These kids are blessed, bright, and able to get an education. It's important to me and to Fairfield that they also remember their fellow human beings. In doing so, they're better able to realize just how fortunate they are."

Two-way inspiration
When Laura Taylor '98 sent out invitations to alumni asking for help on the 1998 Hunger Cleanup, she didn't realize how that the blessing she was trying to give to others would rebound to her as well. And did it ever - in many ways, but one most special: getting to know John Slais, a member of Fairfield's first graduating class in 1951. Slais, a Stratford resident and former principal of Joel Barlow High School in Redding, wanted to participate in the community service project in some way. But bad knees ruled out the physical activity involved in projects such as painting, raking, park cleanup, etc.

"I wanted to do something," says Slais, "without being a fifth wheel. So he offered to host the volunteer sign-up table, where he greeted alumni, faculty, and staff in the morning and later tallied the dollars raised. "He hung out with all of us during the day," says Taylor, "and he was so full of fun. His enthusiasm, knowledge of hunger issues, and commitment to them were a real inspiration."

As for Slais, he was "impressed by the number of students involved - hundreds and hundreds of them - who were out there to do a job, no dilly-dallying, and for a great cause. In my retirement," he continues, "I've had a lot more time to read. The extent of the hunger problem in this country is overwhelming. More than 26 million Americans (over half of whom are white and senior citizens) use food banks every year. We all know what our faith tells us about doing justice. I want to be an activist and stay involved, and this was a great way to do so."

So great that he has already signed up for next year.

In a cream cheese container
Christopher DiMuzio, age 5, had been saving his allowance and "fun money" for eight weeks - in his Stew Leonard's cream cheese container. His earnings, which came primarily from doing "helping jobs" around the house (such as changing the paper rolls each week and helping with recycling), also included whatever lucky pennies and nickels he happened to find on the sidewalk.

"Usually," says Jeanne, Christopher's mom and director of student activities, "part of whatever Chris saves goes into his blue book for savings, part goes back to God including the lucky pennies and nickels, and the rest he uses for special outings such as McDonald's or the movies."

When she explained to Chris that the money being raised at the Hunger Cleanup would let other little children have breakfast, he didn't hesitate. He took the lid off the cream cheese container and dumped his treat money on the table - all $21 of it. And then, as the Hunger Cleanup's official "dust pan man," Christopher actively took part in cleaning the Bread and Roses AIDS Hospice in Norwalk.

And a child shall lead us.

Moving around
Tennis players are accustomed to moving their feet - and quickly. So it should have been no surprise to Scott Middlemass, co-chair of the Hunger Cleanup, when coach Ben Johnson kept calling in all morning. You see, the tennis team was so quick that once they finished at one site, it was on to the next. First, the 10 team members (both men and women) washed windows, picked up parking lot litter, and visited patients at Bread and Roses, an AIDS hospice. They then proceeded to the place where the town of Fairfield trains its fire personnel, and loaded couches and other heavy materials into a dumpster.

According to coach Johnson, it was a great experience. "Although the men and women practice together, helping people in this way helped them come together in a very meaningful way."

Service with a song
The Glee Club put its collective services to work in a variety of ways and at numerous sites. Some, like director Carole Ann Maxwell, spent time cleaning at Fairfield's homeless shelter, Operation Hope. Others, like the dozen who went to the 3030 Park home for the elderly, finished their tasks quickly and spent the rest of the time bringing grateful patients outside for a breath of warm spring air. Still another group provided its service through song.

"At first, I felt a little guilty singing rather than doing hard labor," says senior Mike Batista who, along with 15 other Glee Club members, traveled to New Haven to sing for residents at Clifton House, a home for the disabled. "The range of disabilities was huge," he says, "with people ranging from young to old."

First the chorus performed in a first-floor dining room, singing numbers including the Fairfield alma mater, Broadway songs, and several solos. They then went to the second and third floors, where bedridden patients could hear their music as it drifted in to them from the halls. "This particular group of people would probably not care about having their walls painted or their parking lot cleaned. What they needed was a different kind of service, a different kind of nourishment. It was a different way to serve, and afterwards we were all very glad we did it."

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on June 1, 1998