FOCUS on New Haven 2022 Engages 550 Yale Undergraduates in Community Service

FOCUS on New Haven is back and larger than ever. The Camp Yale orientation program, founded in 1991 and administered by Dwight Hall at Yale, engages Yale College first-years, sophomores, transfer students, and Eli Whitney students in community service, activism, and discussion within and around New Haven. Students are split up into small groups led by one to two FOCUS student leaders–termed “FOCUS families”–that work on service projects together and form close friendships over the course of programming.

In addition to public service work, FOCUS participants are encouraged to explore all that New Haven has to offer, from delicious eateries to a wide array of neighborhoods. Students are also encouraged to think critically about the complex relationship between Yale and New Haven, and how Yale students can make a sustainable impact on the city they now call home.

The 2022 FOCUS on New Haven program boasted 550 participants, a size that is triple the typical number for FOCUS. This growth was in direct response to the expansion of Camp Yale programming by the Yale College Dean’s Office to involve every first-year, transfer, and Eli Whitney student.

The increase in FOCUS’s size required the strengthening of relationships among Dwight Hall’s current community partners and outreach to organizations that had not previously worked with the Hall. In total, FOCUS engaged over thirty-three community partners at over fifty volunteer sites and across two virtual projects. Returning FOCUS partners included Neighborhood Housing Services, the Urban Resources Initiative, Leadership Education & Athletics in Partnership, and Junta for Progressive Action. First-time FOCUS community partners included Never Ending Books, Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, and DataHaven. Dwight Hall also strengthened its ongoing partnership with the City of New Haven, particularly the Parks & Trees Department, which yielded eleven volunteer sites and hosted nearly one hundred and fifteen students on every day of FOCUS programming.

Students engaged in a wide variety of projects, from cleaning up East Rock Park to creating STEM kits for New Haven schoolchildren. Some FOCUS participants even ventured to sites as far as Fairfield, Connecticut.

In nearby East Haven, a FOCUS family assisted Dr. Ivette Ruiz, the founder of Healing by Growing Farms, in building over twenty accessible, raised garden beds for growing crops. The eventual harvest will be donated to individuals in need. While she is a first-time FOCUS partner, Ivette is no stranger to Dwight Hall: Healing by Growing Farms recently won Dwight Hall’s New Haven Civic Innovation Prize for the best community-led venture focused on benefiting the City of New Haven. Ivette envisions Healing by Growing Farms as a therapeutic experiential farm where individuals who have suffered traumatic brain injuries or other trauma can heal through a non-clinical environment. Ivette’s purpose is threefold: “Sanando (healing) our brain, our spirit, and our soil.” Her interest is in training a new generation of farmers, advocating and educating for the disabled, and empowering socially disadvantaged and historically marginalized communities.

The arrival of a FOCUS family marked a significant moment for Healing by Growing Farms–its transition from a regular, suburban backyard to an official farm. Speaking of her excitement in welcoming her FOCUS group, Ivette remarked, “I wanted to provide a space for fresh minds to learn about the importance of food security, global and environmental issues, and community building to create positive social change. I hope to introduce the younger generation to farming, even as a form of public service.”

Back in downtown New Haven, another FOCUS family served at a local staple–the Connecticut Children’s Museum. The Museum’s Executive Director, Jessica Bialecki ’08, is a New Haven native and a Dwight Hall alum, having served as a Student Executive Committee Co-Coordinator and a FOCUS leader during her time at Yale. At the Museum, Jessica leads the Creating Kids Child Care Center, the Creating Curriculum Child Care Provider Training Program, and the Connecticut Children’s Museum itself.

FOCUS participants assisted the Museum with numerous tasks, from refilling a sandbox in the children’s playground to shredding and filing paper records. Jessica noted the important role that FOCUS volunteers play in completing important organizational tasks and physical labor for which she and her colleagues lack the capacity. Jessica also hoped the students’ time at the Museum would inspire them to pursue local leadership and involvement in the future. “I hope students can see that just a few blocks away from campus, there is a rich community institution to be involved with.”

With the conclusion of 2022 FOCUS programming, FOCUS participants, leaders, and Dwight Hall staff are reflecting upon lessons learned at dozens of project sites in New Haven and beyond. Priorities for FOCUS 2023 include providing additional training and support for FOCUS site leaders. Dwight Hall extends its appreciation to all those who made these multi-day public service experiences possible.

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