Helping Hands for the Community

Faculty and staff help support student financial aid and local nonprofits strained by the pandemic through the Tufts Community Appeal

Patty Reilly has steered Tufts financial aid through the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the depths of the Great Recession in 2009. “I thought I’d seen it all, but this year has been the hardest,” said the associate dean of financial aid for the university’s undergraduate students. “There is huge unanticipated need, particularly among international and undocumented students for whom federal aid is not available.”

Students need housing because travel restrictions mean they can’t get home. Parents are out of work and can’t make the expected contribution to their child’s education. A laptop dies and if a student can’t afford a new one, they can’t take classes remotely. At the same time, they may be worried about their own health and their family’s. “I know several students who have lost parents to COVID-19,” Reilly said.

With Tufts anticipating a shortfall of $5 million in aid resources, the 2020 Tufts Community Appeal (TCA) has made financial aid one of two priorities for contributions. “People are coming together to help each other. As hard as it’s been, it’s heartwarming to see,” said Reilly.

The other TCA priority is the Tufts Community Grants program, which supports nonprofits in Boston, Grafton, Medford, and Somerville for which at least one Tufts student or employee volunteers.

Last year, the TCA awarded more than $28,000 in grants to 34 organizations of the more than 50 that submitted funding applications, said Leah Boudreau, community programs specialist. The goal is to expand that.

“We’ve seen how COVID-19 has impacted our host communities’ needs for human services, from technology for kids who are learning at home to hunger assistance. Demand on community agencies has gone through the roof,” Boudreau said.

Hunger is one of the biggest problems. Last year, the Mystic Community Market in Medford and two other markets/food pantries operated by the Mystic Valley YMCA/Malden YMCA distributed 270,000 pounds of food to 16,000 people.

“In 2020, we’ve already distributed two million pounds of food to 100,000 individuals, and the year’s not over,” said Lindsay Smythe, director of fund development at the YMCA. “The difference is staggering.”

With the pandemic limiting the Y’s traditional revenue sources such as membership fees, support from the Tufts Community Appeal has enabled the purchase of essential supplies and equipment such as grocery bags and refrigerators.

Grafton-based Community Harvest works at the other end of the food security pipeline, growing a rainbow of nutritious produce to feed residents in central and eastern Massachusetts and educating people on responsible farming. People who experience hunger often have limited access to healthy foods, which can lead to disorders like heart disease and diabetes in adults and a host of health and behavioral problems in children.

Food insecurity is growing, according to Tori Buerschaper, interim executive director of Community Harvest. “Food markets and pantries we serve are telling us that 40 percent of their patrons are using emergency food service for the first time,” she said.

Unable to mobilize its usual army of volunteers because of pandemic restrictions, the agency has gotten creative, using, for example, a mechanical planter rather than the thousands of individuals who normally plant seeds in the spring. “Grants like Tufts’ are what make our work possible,” Buerschaper said. “No aspect of our work is untouched by this support.”

Last year, 19 percent of employees contributed to the TCA. This year, the TCA team hopes one in five staff and faculty will pitch in. For the second year in a row, Eric Johnson, senior vice president for advancement, will donate $3,000 to financial aid if 150 employees donate for that purpose, and Mary Jeka, senior vice president for university relations and general counsel, will make an equal donation if 150 people support Tufts Community Grants.

Is this a tough time for philanthropy? Perhaps. TCA advisory board member David Leader, D85, MPH13, associate professor of comprehensive care at the School of Dental Medicine, acknowledges the “incredibly hard challenges” that his fellow employees continue to face.

“This is a time like no other,” he said. “But my wife and I didn’t take our usual vacation and we’ve been spending less on other things. I feel fortunate to still be able to give. The way I look at it is this—money is like love. It’s no good unless you spread it around.”

Employees can make online gifts to Tufts Community Grants or Financial Aid. Gifts can also be made by payroll deduction or by check.

Tufts will randomly select three donors and make a donation to a local charity of their choice. Gifts made by staff and faculty on Giving Tuesday will count towards the Tufts Community Appeal.

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