Community Impact Celebrates 30 Years of Service

Special from The Record

April 20, 2011Bookmark and Share
Community Impact's volunteers and partners have provided education, job training, food, shelter, clothing and health information to Upper Manhattan residents since 1981. (5:41)

Felecia Hunter was always bothered that she never finished high school. It stayed in the back of her mind as she worked at a variety of minimum-wage jobs to help support her family. It was not until she came across Community Impact, Columbia’s longstanding community service organization, that she was able to do something about it.

The Columbia students who volunteered as teachers at Community Impact “taught me how to get back into the groove of being a student again after so many years,” Hunter said. “They never said to me if you get your GED, it was always when.” Hunter got her GED in the fall of 2007, and after earning an associate’s degree from the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), she is now a second-year film major at Columbia’s School of General Studies.

She is one of 8,000 New Yorkers Community Impact serves each year through more than two dozen local service groups that provide education, job training, food, shelter, clothing and health information in Morningside Heights, Harlem and Washington Heights. (Columbia College’s longstanding service program, Double Discovery, focuses on college prep for local high school students.)

This year, Community Impact celebrates its 30th anniversary. What began in 1981 as an effort by Columbia students to mentor local youth has evolved into a University-supported volunteer organization that serves low-income people in the neighborhoods surrounding Columbia and provides service opportunities for 900 Columbia students, faculty and staff members each year.

“Our country has tried to realize its principles of equality and fairness, but we obviously have a long way to go in meeting the human needs we see around us,” said President Lee Bollinger, who served in a South Bronx legal aid clinic as a Columbia law student. “At college you can come and read books on these issues, find out what scholars think, do your own research. But through Community Impact, you can also assist in a public health clinic or mentor local youth or serve in a food pantry. These combined experiences, in and outside the classroom—that’s an education.”

For Sonia Reese, the group’s executive director, this 30-year milestone has personal resonance. She grew up in the Grant Houses, a housing project just a few blocks from the Morningside Heights campus. At 13, she was offered a full scholarship to the Putney School, a private boarding school in Vermont. She says she never forgot her peers, who didn’t have that kind of opportunity.

“Those friends who I grew up with in middle school, junior high school, always stayed in the back of my mind,” said Reese, who has been executive director for 22 years. “I always wanted them to have the opportunities, the pushing, the support that I was lucky enough to have. So when I interviewed for the job at Community Impact at Columbia, one of the things that was most exciting to me was the opportunity to work with the population that I had grown up with.”

At the organization’s main fundraising event, its annual auction held April 11, Community Impact honored Columbia University trustee chair William Campbell (CC’62) for his commitment to the group.

“For 30 years, what Community Impact has represented for thousands of our students is the fulfillment of the University’s responsibility to the people and the neighborhoods of New York City who teach us all so much,” Campbell said. “It constantly proves the truism that, through volunteer service, we ultimately get back even more than we give.”

Now that she’s a student at Columbia herself, Hunter is a Community Impact mentor, helping other students studying for their own GEDs as she once did. Among the experiences she can now share with others are the time as a community college student she spent in Salzburg, Austria as part of an international study-abroad program and the five-week intensive summer program at Vassar College where she studied sociology and religion.

“Being a student at Community Impact created this domino effect in my life,” Hunter said.

Carlin Lungu arrived in New York from the Republic of Congo 10 months ago. Thanks to Community Impact’s ESL preparation courses, the 23-year-old quickly learned English and will be a BMCC freshman majoring in biology come fall. He wants to attend medical school.

“When I came here I didn’t speak any English,” said Lungu, who volunteers as a cook in Community Impact’s food pantry program. “Columbia’s Community Impact is a great place to get started.”

It also provides the kind of opportunity for civic engagement that attracts students to the University. Jason Mogen (CC’12) chose Columbia in part because of its community service tradition. He is treasurer of Community Impact’s student executive team and volunteers as a tutor and mentor to public middle school students. “It is important for us to engage the people that live in the area and not just the people who live in the residence halls on campus,” Mogen said. “We can benefit from one another.”

—by Melanie A. Farmer