Waltham Group set to celebrate 50th anniversary

Leading up to this weekend's celebration, former volunteers and coordinators were asked to send in their memories of the Waltham Group. Take a look at what they had to say.

Photo courtesy of Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections

Chuck Gordon '86 serves as a tutor and mentor to two local children as part of the Big Siblings program. The program continues today: About 40 children are matched with "bigs."

Brandeis University and Waltham community organizations are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Waltham Group, one of the oldest and largest university-based student service organizations in the country. The yearlong commemoration begin with a weekend of service and celebration on Oct. 8 and 9. Activities include volunteer opportunities, a carnival for kids and a gala dinner.

The Waltham Group was founded in 1966 in response to student activism and in recognition of the university's responsibility to be engaged in the community. More than 20,000 Brandeis students have volunteered in and around Waltham with the Waltham Group since then.

Through the Waltham Group, Brandeis students work with every age group from kindergarteners through elders, with Waltham-area organizations tackling issues from student achievement to homelessness to health. Volunteer opportunities include short-term projects like collecting canned goods to long-term mentorships that in some cases have lasted a lifetime.

Leading up to this weekend's celebration, former volunteers and coordinators were asked to send in their memories of the Waltham Group. Here's a sampling of what they had to say:

Daniel Nestel '88: I recently had lunch with Peter Joyce, who was the Waltham Group Director during my time at Brandeis from 1984-88. It had been nearly 30 years since we had last seen each other but it didn’t feel that way as we reminisced about old times. One of Brandeis’ most appealing qualities is its community which invites students to get involved and assume leadership roles. As an entering freshman, I was welcomed into the Waltham Group and in just one year I was co-coordinator of the Companion to Elders program. The Waltham Group soon became family and this environment was fostered through Peter’s leadership and his ability to forge a cohesive group of student leaders. We were all involved in community service before it was cool. My lunch with Peter demonstrates why the Waltham Group has thrived for 50 years, the connection to the group remains strong even after a 3 decade absence. Congrats, WG on your 50th!

Ashley (Ruskiewicz) Hinds '08: I joined the Waltham Group’s Companions to Elders program my first year at Brandeis. I was matched with a 93-year-old woman named Marie. Marie loved word games, so we played Scrabble once or twice a week. I really enjoyed hanging out with her because she was so funny. She even had a boyfriend. I got to spend with Marie through my senior year at Brandeis. At a certain point, her macular degeneration made it too difficult for us to play word games, so we would just sit and chat. I still visited Marie even after I graduated, until she moved to the western part of Massachusetts. I think if I had to say just one lesson that I learned from Marie, it was that life really only has the limitations that we set for ourselves. I have carried that with me ever since. I always think of how Marie used every resource she had to live her life to the fullest. I know that I was supposed to be there for Marie, but really, I’m forever grateful for the lifetime of lessons that she taught me.

Ellen Seidman '89: For a couple of years, I ran Toddler Playgroup. On Friday mornings, we'd head to the rec room of a local housing development and watch tots for a couple of hours to give their moms a break. Senior year, I learned to drive a Brandeis van to transport the group there, which my friends found amusing given my so-called driving skills. Lisa Steckler ('89) and Lisa Rus ('88) also volunteered, and we had a great time playing with the kids and doing crafts. Now that I'm a mom, I know how precious free time is and I'm glad we were able to give some to those moms.

Kathryn Semerau '17: Helping people with disabilities is a cause I take to heart. Both of my twin sisters were born premature and, as a result, are severely intellectually disabled. I was first an advocate on their behalf, loving them as a sister and attending to their special needs as a third parent. When I left home for Brandeis I missed them dearly and sought a way to give back to others with intellectual disabilities. Spectrum, a Waltham Group organization that facilitates tutoring and mentorship programs, gave me this opportunity. I was delighted to be paired with Christina, a rising ninth grade student who struggles from learning disabilities, primarily number blindness. She and I bonded over our mutual interests in music and fashion, and exchanged stories about what a rollercoaster life can be. Our rapport grew quickly. We have been working together for the past three years; next year will be our last since we are both rising seniors! I am consoled knowing that our relationship has grown beyond Algebra II and that we will be lifelong friends. My favorite experience with Christina was when she bounded towards me and exclaimed that she had won an academic award at her school because I helped her get her grades up. I will never forget how her eyes sparkled that day, a mark of pride and gratitude.

Dorian Block '04: I had been a volunteer before coming to Brandeis, but the Waltham Group taught me that I could think big and execute. Being able to take on a leadership role and develop programming however we saw fit, gave me the freedom to dream. While a part of the Waltham Group, we organized the annual campus-wide Halloween canned food drive, volunteered regularly at several local shelters and developed educational programming around hunger and homelessness. I also tutored kids one-on-one and worked at an after-school program during my time at Brandeis. I can still remember the feeling of holding the babies at one shelter and feeding them bottles. Many of their mothers were HIV positive. We helped in a tiny way so that the mothers could have some time to take care of everything they had to. I remember watching early intervention specialists evaluate children in the shelter for developmental delays. These rich memories have stuck with me in my own work and understanding of poverty. They have also shaped my worldview now that I have my own children. My husband, who I met while we were freshman at Brandeis, was a tutor through the Waltham Group as well. I encouraged him to do it, and in a letter before we got married, he wrote that I helped teach him that giving back was a way of living not just something people put on their resume.

Jessica Israel Cannon '90: My work with the Waltham Group, over a quarter of a century ago, set the stage for much of who I am today. From 1987 - 1990, I coordinated the PT/DC Rec program providing after school programs for kids living in Waltham's public housing. Through this program, I was exposed to children whose day to day realities were dramatically different from what I had experienced. The time I spent with the children living in Prospect Terrace and Dana Court deeply impacted me. Witnessing the impact of capitalism, racism and poverty gave new meaning to my courses and inspired me to commit to a life of social action. My role as coordinator developed my leadership competencies. After graduating, I continued directing after school programs. In 1997, I received my Masters in Social Work and started working in schools. I obtained a teaching credential and spent ten years teaching in an East Oakland middle school. I used the skills I developed through the Waltham Group every day. Today, I am the proud principal of an Oakland elementary school - working hard to make the world a better place for all children.

Categories: Alumni, Student Life

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