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Vassar Community Members Find Creative Ways to Help During Pandemic

When the COVID-19 crisis shut down most activities on campus, many in the Vassar community mobilized to help others cope with the impact of the pandemic.

One of several dozen postcards sent by artists and photographers to local senior citizens in the Poughkeepsie community.
  • Adele Birkenes ’20 and Siennah Yang ’18 are working with government officials and nonprofit agencies to create and maintain an interactive digital map of Dutchess County that identifies health services, supermarkets, food pantries, and meal distribution sites, as well as other key resources.
  • Members of The Environmental Cooperative at Vassar Barns organized a project that provided nature-based photographs and artwork to local senior citizens.
  • Throughout the spring, members of the Vassar College Urban Education Initiative maintained tutoring and outreach programs, staying in touch with students in Poughkeepsie schools after the school district shifted to distance learning.
  • Two members of the Vassar Innovation Lab joined a project launched by the State University of New York at New Paltz, using 3D printers to make face shields for doctors, nurses, and others working in local hospitals.
  • Nicole Scalessa, Head of Digital Scholarship and Technology Services at the Vassar Library, used her skills as a seamstress to make masks for medical facilities in southeastern Pennsylvania, where she has been sequestered during the pandemic.

Adele Birkenes ’20 and Siennah Yang ’18: A Resource Map

A map of resources and emergency resources compiled by Siennah Yang ’18 and Adele Birkenes ’20.

Birkenes and Yang used knowledge they had gained during their Vassar careers to develop the mapping project. During her first year at Vassar, Yang worked with local restaurants to distribute leftover food to local food pantries and soup kitchens.  Birkenes had a campus job working in the Office of Community-Engaged Learning and worked with the Vassar chapter of Hudson Valley Mappers, an organization that uses GIS (Geographic Information System) technology to identify and track community resources and other geographic data. 

When the pandemic started during Spring Break, Birkenes was back home in Greenbelt, MD. She said she reached out to others at Hudson Valley Mappers via email to brainstorm on how their knowledge might best be put to use.

Siennah Yang ’18

Yang, who is working and living in the area, said she saw Birkenes’s email, “and it got me thinking about how to use mapping to support the community.” Soon, she and Birkenes were creating a map that identified some key resources, and they worked with local nonprofit agencies and government officials to enhance it.

 “We received enthusiastic responses from a lot of people,” Birkenes said, “so we developed a team of Vassar students and community partners to help us to continue to populate the map.”

Mapping experts from Bard College and Dutchess County Tourism soon joined the project, and it continued to grow, adding libraries, wifi locations, and other resources.

Adele Birkenes ’20

Birkenes said the project has been rewarding on many levels. “As a geography major, I was able to use what I learned to help people, and the project enabled me to stay connected to many people in the community I’ve gotten to know in the last couple of years,” she said.

Yang said more than 3,000 local residents used the map within a month of its inception. “The pandemic has presented challenges to all of us,” she said, “but it’s been interesting to see how this map has continued to evolve and serve the needs of people in the community.”

Environmental Cooperative: Connecting with Seniors

Artwork from local students brightened seniors’ lives.

Shortly after the crisis began, Lauren Bell, Education and Outreach Assistant at the Environmental Cooperative at Vassar Barns, was talking to some of her fellow members of the Student Conservation Association. “Another SCA member mentioned she had watched a webinar about connecting with older adults, so we started brainstorming on what we could do to connect with the community in Poughkeepsie,” Bell said. “We noticed that most initiatives focused on kids, but we thought it might be nice for seniors to receive some art or photographs as spring was coming.” 

Bell contacted some Vassar students and local artists and photographers, and President Elizabeth Bradley mentioned the initiative in one of her Sunday emails to the Vassar community. Within a few days, Bell was receiving photos, paintings, and drawings, which she converted into postcards that were sent to local senior centers and residents who were receiving home-delivered meals through a program run by the Dutchess County Office for the Aging.

Within a few weeks, more than 300 postcards bearing pictures of nature were delivered to senior citizens throughout the county. They were created by local artists and photographers as well as students from Vassar, the Culinary Institute of America, local high schools and elementary schools, and Vassar’s Wimpfheimer Nursery School.

Bell said the project was inspiring. “Our older citizens are especially vulnerable in this crisis,” she said, “and this was a nice way to let them know that some others in the community were thinking of them.”

VCUEI: Staying Connected with Local Students

While in-person tutoring and mentoring programs run by the Vassar College Urban Education Initiative (VCUEI) had to cease with the onset of the pandemic, Vassar students found other ways to maintain their relationships with students in the Poughkeepsie City School District. Middle school students enrolled in VUELA (a Spanish word that means “to soar”), a mentoring group launched in 2018 by some tutors in the Vassar English Language Learners Outreach Program (VELLOP), continued to meet with their Vassar mentors via Zoom.

VELLOP Coordinator Jorge Gruber ’18 said the mentors were able to keep VUELA going when the schools closed for the spring by having remote conversations with the students and their parents. “These kids are bright and curious, but they face major obstacles, so it was important for (the VUELA mentors) to reaffirm their sense of purpose,” Gruber said.

VCUEI Faculty Director Tracey Holland said other tutoring and mentoring programs, including Exploring College and the Vassar After School Tutoring (VAST) programs, continued to function on a limited basis. “Our Exploring College mentors have kept in touch with their high school students and have continued some of the after-school programming,” Holland said. “We’ll continue to offer support through the end of the public school year.”

Vassar Innovation Lab: Making Shields with 3D Printers

The Vassar Innovation Lab was created in 2019 as a technological resource for all students and faculty. When hospitals and first responders faced shortages of protective face shields at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 3D printers in the Innovation Lab were put to use addressing these shortages.

Amy Laughlin wears a finished product
Chad Fust

Amy Laughlin, Vassar’s Senior Academic Computing Consultant and Director of the Innovation Lab, and Chad Fust, Emerging Technologies and Training Specialist and Vassar Innovation Lab Manager, joined a project launched locally at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “The makers community in general and the SUNY New Paltz staff responded to the shortage, and we were thinking of ways to help,” Laughlin said.

Laughlin and Fust found a design for face shields compatible with the college’s four 3D printers and went to work. Fust reached out to a friend who is an emergency room physician at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie for advice on what was needed. He also contacted a local nonprofit housing agency, Hudson River Housing, Inc., to establish a means of donating the shields to their employees.

 “When it was clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would force us to close the campus and the lab wouldn’t be used by students or faculty, we wanted to do something to be helpful,” Fust said. When he was required to leave the campus and work remotely, Fust took one of the 3D printers home and continued to make the shields. 

Nicole Scalessa: Using Her Skills to Combat Coronavirus 

Scalessa, head of Digital Scholarship and Technology Services at Thompson Library, learned to sew at an early age. When the COVID-19 crisis required her to work remotely, she moved temporarily to suburban Philadelphia to be closer to relatives. When she heard that hospitals in the area were running low on some protective equipment, Scalessa found a pattern and began sewing. “I found a good pattern that many health agencies had approved and put together a how-to video so others could make masks too,” she said.

Nicole Scalessa used her skills as a seamstress to make masks for first responders in the community.

She sent the first masks she made to University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia and Riddle Hospital in nearby Springfield, PA. Later, she got in touch with a manager of Lowe’s hardware, and he distributed her masks to stores in Newburgh and Poughkeepsie. She said an image of Lowe’s employees wearing her masks has been used as part of a nationwide campaign by Lowe’s to encourage people to wear masks.

Scalessa says she enjoys putting her sewing skills to good use in the midst of the crisis. “I’m stuck in the house and can’t go anywhere anyway, and it makes me feel I’m helping in some way,” she said. “It’s nice that my hobby is making me feel like I’m contributing.”