Beyond Vassar

Serving Locally

By Beth Trickett

When Vassar Student Association (VSA) president Jimmy Kelly ’09 walks into his student office every day, he sees two giant posters of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. “I like to think they keep watch over me,” Kelly says. “I’m driven by what they’ve done.” At just 21 years old, Kelly himself has a list of accomplishments that seems to grow by the day, though he is the last one to flaunt his resume and is self-effacing when asked about awards. “I’m very fortunate and thankful for what I have, so I feel like it’s my duty to give back however I can.”

Kelly’s anti-poverty work began while he was attending high school in nearby Pleasant Valley. While working at a local grocery store, he noticed that shoppers kept coming in with books of coupons and double coupons. “They’d come up to me at checkout with a pile of groceries that were on sale, and they’d use the coupon and walk out with an entire cart of groceries for 10 dollars or less, sometimes for free,” he explains. “I thought this was incredible and saw how it could help local agencies. So I went back to school and organized a club junior year to start cutting coupons in bulk, and then buying tons of groceries each week at little to no cost. It got to be so crazy; we were just wiping out the shelves every week.” Eventually, the group started working with store managers to put an order aside. Operation Donation was in full swing, and the year Kelly graduated from high school, the club had raised $17,000 worth of groceries for local organizations, spending only $81 in the process. “This is when I knew I wanted to be involved in social change,” he says.

Determined to maintain the program’s momentum, Kelly started Operation Donation during his first year at Vassar. “One of the things I’ve learned is that helping people isn’t easy!” he says, explaining how eventually the double coupon program was phased out and the group had to find a new tactic to raise money and collect food. At one point, students donated points from their meal plans to help buy over 4,000 pounds of rice. Now the group, which has over 35 active members, holds hunger banquets to raise awareness and encourages people to donate year-round and not just at the holidays. Last year, the group raised over $31,000 for local food pantries, hitting a record-breaking $71,000 in total giving. “I want to go out with a bang,” says Kelly, adding that he hopes to reach a total of $100,000 before graduation.

Aside from donating enough to keep one local food pantry’s shelves completely stocked from May through August of this year, the members of Operation Donation also became more involved in hands-on volunteering, working at Poughkeepsie’s Family Partnership Center to help distribute 5,000 coats to residents in need during the winter last year. They also trained volunteers to meet with low-income individuals on weekends to help them fill out their tax returns and apply for a special credit.

Last year, the group organized students nationwide to travel to Washington, DC, to lobby congress on the Farm Bill. Kelly lobbied senators to change policies against small farmers and also to address issues surrounding climate change. He has also voiced his concern about a lack of affordable housing in Poughkeepsie. At the request of a local nonprofit, he testified in front of the mayor and city council. “I’m not waiting until I graduate to start doing these things,” he says. “People need help now, and I always tell people that it’s best to start wherever you are to do what you can.”

It’s safe to assume that sleep is a rarity for Kelly, who is also the president of the VSA and has been active since his first year at Vassar, when he was class president. In his junior year, he was elected the vice president for activities, where he had to single-handedly oversee 126 organizations, signing off on every student event and answering a hundred emails a day. As part of student government, he worked as the Vassar community liaison, helping to organize a community shuttle to bring students off campus. “This is an incredible campus,” he says. “I feel like Vassar has given me so many opportunities. At Vassar, we have a shared governance, where everyone has a say in creating the final product. Everyone at the table has a stake, not just the administration.”

When Kelly graduates in May with a degree in sociology (he has correlates in both comparative politics and political science), he hopes to get his master’s degree in international development and work for an NGO. “This is my passion,” he reflects. “I feel like my motivation in this world is to try to understand how people are connected and to try to form a more mutual understanding and cooperation.” At the end of each day, with all the inequalities and injustice in the world, Kelly pays homage to the leaders on his wall by maintaining an infectious sense of hope. “A lot of people fear that humanity is devolving,” he says. “After being around so many wonderful people at Vassar, I see that there’s a lot of hope that our generation is going to make a huge difference in the world around us. We’re going to go out there and do big things.”