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How first-year students jump in to serve the community around them

Sheets of braille are on the presses of the National Braille Press in Boston. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

First-year business administration major Rylan Gonzalez learned at least two major lessons from his grandparents while growing up just outside of West Palm Beach, Florida: the genteel Southern art of addressing others as “Sir” or “Ma’am,” and the importance of giving back to the community.

Gonzalez immediately put those lessons into practice at Northeastern. He and about 80 other first-year students enrolled in Northeastern’s Alliance of Civically Engaged Students, a year-long commitment that pairs students with local charities. The program also helps new students connect to each other and the Boston neighborhoods outside the campus.

Alliance of Civically Engaged Students member Rylan Gonzalez, a Northeastern freshman, poses for a portrait at the National Braille Press in Boston where he volunteers. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“It was like a crash course on the Boston community and how you can be a part of it,” says Gonzalez about the volunteer program’s intensive orientation week. Students and staff met daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., helping to put meals together at the Greater Boston Food Bank or acting as quality inspectors of the crayons and other donations made to the nonprofit organization Cradles to Crayons. Meanwhile, they’d learn about civic responsibility and take several walking tours of Boston’s neighborhoods.

“While traveling around the community, we also created our own little community,” says Gonzalez. “I still see and spend time with the people I met during orientation week.”

Devoted to reading and tutoring others since he was younger, Gonzalez chose to volunteer at the National Braille Press. The press has been printing braille newspapers since 1927 and has expanded to children’s books and even Red Sox schedules for the blind.

Sheets of braille are on the presses of the National Braille Press in Boston. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“It’s such a direct route in terms of helping people,” says Gonzalez. One of the most important aspects of the press involves printing clear plastic sheets of braille that are layered over text and illustrations in children’s books.

“We call that dual formatting, so a sighted person could read to a blind child or a blind parent could read to a sighted child. It’s a really important part of our children’s program,” says Edie Shimel, the marketing manager at the National Braille Press.

Once the braille sheets are printed, either on paper or plastic, the sheets are hand-collated and bound in-house. The press prints versions of classic children’s books like “The Little Engine that Could,” as well as a collection of local take-out menus in braille.

The university has maintained a close relationship with the National Braille Press for more than 15 years, says Hilary Sullivan, director of Northeastern’s Office of Community Service and Civic Engagement. Student volunteers learn about the community beyond the university’s campus at organizations like the youth soccer center Boston SCORES and Community Servings, a center providing food as well as lessons about nutrition and health care overall. The nonprofit organizations partnering with Sullivan’s office make connections to potential future collaborators.

The Little Engine That Could and The Day the Crayons Quit are just two of the children’s books printed at the National Braille Press in Boston. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Sullivan stresses to students that working with existing organizations such as the National Braille Press or the Hyde Square Task Force is more helpful than parachuting in and trying to volunteer without a sense of the neighborhood’s needs.

“Our role is to support the existing assets of the community rather than coming in to try and fix or save it,” says Sullivan.

“The goal is to help civically engaged students build a community among one another, and then they can strengthen the communities surrounding Northeastern,” she says.

Gonzalez, who has decided to concentrate on management and minor in environmental studies, says he’s just happy to continue the good work modeled by his grandparents.

“This idea of the many helping the few is something that has been instilled in me since I was born,” says Gonzalez. “I want to make sure that I’m keeping that sense of service throughout my life and in my endeavors as I move forward, so one day hopefully I can instill it in my children.”

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