‘We love Huskies.’ Northeastern students tackle neighborhood service projects in Roxbury

students working in a garden
Photo by Billie Weiss for Northeastern University

Northeastern senior Roman Barker-Waters was off campus at the nearby Madison Park Village Community Garden in Roxbury early Saturday morning raking garden beds, pulling weeds and collecting fallen leaves into bags along with neighborhood residents and other student volunteers.  

“It’s been really nice to be here and to serve that community,” said Barker-Waters, a political science and international affairs major at the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. 

The students also helped pick the last of the season’s produce, including green onions, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and fall flowers, he said. While pulling weeds, he came across something unexpected.

“I was just pulling stuff out,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God, there are radishes here.’ And everybody was really excited about that.”

Barker-Waters was one of more than 50 Northeastern students who participated in Northeastern Service Day on Oct. 22, the first since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We see this event as a way for students to ‘get their feet wet’ by going to and learning about a community organization,” said Hilary Sullivan, director of community service and civic engagement at the Office of the Chancellor in Education Innovation.

Most of the opportunities offered by her department involve sustained volunteering for a whole semester or one year, Sullivan said, which has a more lasting impact both for partners and for students.

“But these one-time events help introduce students to our work and the communities surrounding Northeastern,” she said.

This year, six community organizations from Roxbury, Fenway, Roslindale and other neighborhoods requested Northeastern volunteers to help with one-time needs such as painting, cleaning, gardening or event planning. Madison Park Development Corporation, a 55-year-old nonprofit dedicated to building a better community in Roxbury, was one of them.

“Roxbury is a food desert,” said Leslie Stafford, health equity and wellness coordinator at MPDC.

The Community Garden Program provides residents and their children with easy access to affordable and healthy food, she said. Between Madison Park Village Community Garden, also known as Hope Garden, and Orchard Gardens Community Garden, MPDC has 78 garden beds, including raised beds for seniors, that benefit more than 100 people.

two women hugging in a garden
Photo by Billie Weiss for Northeastern University

Growing food allows participants to save up to $100 a month. The gardeners grow herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, green beans, eggplants, peppers, sweet potatoes, cabbage, okra, squash and more. Sometimes, leftover produce gets donated to churches and other senior citizens and community members, Stafford said.

There is a Kids’ Garden Club for children aged two to 18. MPDC also hosts events like tea parties and the Fourth of July celebration in the garden as it has a beautiful view of the Boston skyline, perfect for watching fireworks.  

“This is a safe space for them. They come in and don’t have to worry about anything,” Stafford said. “Sometimes they come to the garden and just sit there, and listen to the wind, and share conversations with other gardners.”

Northeastern students have supported MPDC in various ways for years, Stafford said. The university has provided seeds and helped with beautification as well as held information sessions for youth.

“We love Huskies,” said Lydia Clapp, a Roxbury resident who has Northeastern graduates in her family and has been a Hope Garden member for five years. “They help us so much. When you are a senior, sometimes you don’t have the energy.”

She said she enjoyed having the students in the garden. 

“They are a big help with whatever we cannot do or don’t have time to do, especially with the leaves at this time of the year,” said Zulma Medina, one of the six community garden leaders.

After the work was done, Hope Garden members chatted with the students, shared their cooking recommendations and life advice, talked about Northeastern and encouraged the students to stay in touch with MPDC.

John Tobin, Northeastern vice president of city and community engagement, said these service projects are more examples of Northeastern students giving back to the neighborhood they live in.

“They get to know their neighbors, not just during a co-op but at night, on weekends. It’s remarkable,” Tobin said.

“I think whether you’re a Northeastern student who lives in the neighborhood or on campus, you have a responsibility to be a good neighbor,” Tobin said. “We’ve been a good partner with the city for years. The reputation of Northeastern being a positive neighbor in the city endures.”

At another service site—St. Stephen’s Youth Programs on Lenox Street at the Church of St. Augustine and St. Martin—student volunteers were helping with a variety of indoor projects like painting walls to make the space more inviting, cleaning out a room full of old items for a future game room and creating artwork to decorate the space.

St. Stephen’s Youth Programs is a Roxbury-based nonprofit that provides youth from five to 25 years old year-round academic and social and emotional support, enrichment activities, jobs for teenage participants and career coaching. 

Northeastern has been a longtime partner of St. Stephen’s, said Latasha Scott, director for middle school programming at the Lower Roxbury site.

“I love working with kids and I know how much impact you can have when they have positive environments and safe environments,” said Riley Price, a second-year Northeastern student, who signed up for the Service Day with her roommate Sophia Shaughnessy and was applying painter’s tape to a wall.

Price said she was intrigued by the organization as she herself was studying early childhood education and also wanted to see what volunteering with Northeastern’s community service and civic engagement department was like.

“It has been really cool,” she said. “I’m definitely very interested in getting more involved in the service aspects of it.”

It is important to realize that one is not just a university student but a part of this community, Price said, and to get out and see what the community might need.

Some other students were adding inspirational quotes and drawings on square canvases with acrylic paint, like, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated” by Maya Angelou or, “Progress, not perfection.”

“What I want to say to these middle schoolers, because that’s the target audience here, is going to school you feel a lot of times like you are not getting anywhere because you’re at that awkward stage,” said Darryna Guy-Williams, a second-year student in the College of Engineering, drawing a bright lightbulb in the middle of her canvas. “No matter what you might think, shine and be yourself.”

“I just want to say thank you, because it’s big,” Scott said. “I really hope that they understand that this is bigger than just them. It is to serve the greater good.”

She invited the volunteers to come back and spend time with the children.

Besides the Service Day, the office of community service and civic engagement offers semester- and year-long volunteering opportunities and shorter alternative breaks with community organizations that address critical social issues such as affordable housing, environmental conservation, youth education and sustainable agriculture.

This fall students will go on the alternative breaks to three places during the Veterans Day weekend: an animal sanctuary in New York, to Maine to do some food security work and to Prescott farms in New Hampshire to do some environmental work, Sullivan said.

The department is planning 10 trips both within the U.S. and abroad for the alternative spring break. 

“We’re recruiting participants for all of those right now,” Sullivan said. “In January, we will start recruiting again for our community volunteers program, which is  semester-long, weekly volunteering in Boston with a number of different sites.”

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