Norwich, Boys and Girls Club win
Vermont Campus Compact award © April 13, 2007 Norwich University Office of Communications

Walking around Norwich, it’s hard to ignore the presence of civic responsibility and service on campus: fliers advertising volunteer opportunities and lectures on social responsibility, classes being taught with the importance of service a part of the discussion and even a student life office dedicated to volunteer opportunities.

“Norwich has an amazing ethic of service,” said Director of Service-Learning, Michelle Barber. “Not only is service to one's country important at NU, but service to one’s community is a vital part of the educational experience here too.”

So when Norwich University and the Northfield Boys & Girls Club (BGC) were awarded the Campus/Community Partnership Award at the Vermont Campus Compact (VCC) Gala on Thursday, March 29, in the Vermont Statehouse, you could say it felt like a homecoming.

“I think earning this award and seeing that other people outside of our little club notice us, I think that has been a sort of validating factor,” said senior Krystal Brandt, a volunteer at the club.

The VCC, a non-profit association comprised of twenty-two Green Mountain higher education institutions, honored the Norwich-Boys and Girls Club connection as <“>an exemplary established partnership that has enriched the outcomes for both campus and community,” as the award description states.

“We just think it’s an extraordinary honor to be highlighted and distinguished in this way,” said Nicole DiDomenico, director of Volunteer Programs and NU’s recipient of the award.

Although NU and the Northfield Boys and Girls Club have been working together for the past four years, DiDomenico cites Tony Moulton, the club’s unit director since 2005, as one of the main reasons the club has “blossomed.”

And blossom it did. When Moulton first started at the club, there were 19 teen members, one Americorps volunteer and a few adults. However, within half a year the club grew to more than 200 and, according to Moulton, he’s currently “swimming in applications.”

“Nicole got involved [and started] sending more volunteers [and] it grew. Americorps exploded at Norwich and the community service part of it happened,” Moulton said. “We’ve really gotten to a point where Nicole can just send them down instead of calling.”

The VCC also esteemed the impact the partnership has had on both the teens and the college students. “Increased self-esteem, better conflict resolution skills, and academic improvements in the youth served by the BGC have been observed by high school principals, nurses, teachers, guidance counselors, law officials, parents, and recently, even the Governor. Staff at the Boys and Girls Club also report increased confidence, self-esteem, maturity and even shifts in career aspirations in the Norwich University students,” the organization noted in the program for Thursday evening’s annual award ceremony.

The partnership was also given kudos for the surprising success of sending and taking in students who need to complete mandated service hours as a disciplinary action.

”Seventy- percent of our students [over the last four years] who have completed their service hours at the Club have wound up volunteering there long after their mandated hours are fulfilled,“ DiDomenico said.

Brandt embodies DiDomenico’s observation of students volunteering at the club getting “hooked on helping.” Brandt, who was involved with NU’s Volunteer Program before working at the club, started at the BGC in January when she was looking for a constructive way to work off mandated hours.

“I’ve stayed ever since, I love it,” Brandt said. “The club is a place to escape that reality for a few hours and just be a teen. There are some kids who don't have the best home life in the sense of not always getting everything they need, like enough food or positive attention; and we make sure there’s food and interaction, concern, and a light-hearted atmosphere to relieve that a bit.”

Brandt, now a staff member at the club, loved working off mandatory hours there so much that she wanted other students to have the experience, so she worked with Nicole and Tony to start a community restitution program.

“After Nicole and Tony saw how that worked out and led to my more permanent position at the club, it was discussed and I made a case for more students to be allowed this option,” Brandt said.

But because the club strives to be a place where teens should look up to their supervisors as role models, Brandt stressed that college students coming in to work off hours need to be “mature and responsible enough in these roles.” Brandt noted that working with younger teens can be a foreign experience for some and the position isn’t right for everybody.

Though the VCC Campus/Community Partnership award is about the two programs working together, it’s clear that both DiDomenico and Moulton believe the volunteers, Americorps and work-study students from NU, are very responsible for strengthening the relationship between the University, the BGC and the Northfield community as a whole. Whether it’s day-to-day activities such as playing a game of ping pong, homework help or just talking with the teens, the college students make and leave a huge impact on the kids.

“Without the (NU) students, we wouldn’t be able to serve the youth—we wouldn’t have the quality,” Moulton said. “There’s a myriad of issues that plague youth. The 15-minute conversations they have can steer (the teens) to new activities or a purpose they can take off with.”

Sophomore Evan Spaulding, who is also a member of the Corps of Cadets couldn’t agree more. “I fell in love with the opportunity you have to affect the kids—they come in after having a bad day but in talking to them for five minutes, you can change their perspective.”

While DiDomenico and Moulton chalk their success up to their NU students, the volunteers have a different opinion on the success; they all agree it’s the dedication and enthusiasm of Nicole and Tony that led to the BGC maturation.

“Tony and Nicole are two of the greatest people I have ever met,” sophomore John Szewczyk said. “They are both extremely dedicated to their jobs and work very well together.”

Brandt echoed Szwczyk’s sentiments about Moulton and DiDomenico’s enthusiasm. “The partnership that Tony and Nicole have fostered is one of the most valuable things I've seen accomplished by any organization, let alone two,” she said. “Tony and Nicole are both individuals who have a passion for helping others and helping find routes for potential volunteers to find their niche.

“Not to belittle other programs or their efforts, by any means, but the amount of time and dedication that are present for this partnership are unparalleled from what I've seen. Tony has said many times that he would probably have to close down the club if he lost the Norwich students that he has volunteering and working there,” Brandt said. “There is an unspoken, amazing connection between the Norwich students and the Boys and Girls Club, and the way everything just meshes almost flawlessly is wonderful. To have college students from various backgrounds with different personalities, but all pursuing educational advancement, is a great formula for mentors for these kids.”

Just as the VCC notes the importance of a campus and community partnership that produces “mutually beneficial ways to produce measurable improvements in people's lives and enhance learning in the process,” Moulton stresses the importance that the NU students get something in return too.

“We’ve been able to provide NU students with skills, and seen their self esteem and purpose develop,” he said. “The kids see that too and they take that [away with them].”

Spaulding also noticed improvements in his academic work stemming from his work at the Club. “I tie my own study skills in. I see my own study skills improve. Like the old saying ‘practice what you preach.’”

The club and NU were also honored by the VCC for going “beyond direct service and intervention,” and engaging in “collaborative planning for fundraising and activities and community awareness,” VCC Executive Director, Amy Gibans McGlashan said at the gala.

Professor Diane Byrne of Norwich’s teacher education program also uses the club for various reasons. Byrne said she sees the BGC as an observation site for her doctoral research on Integrated Studies in which she’s looking at the effects of service-learning coupled with emotional learning.

“I picked the club over the classroom because I wanted to give [my] students the experience of helping out community and seeing students in a non-classroom environment,” Byrne said. “It allows them to reflect on learning empathy skills. It’s been a perfect match.”

Moreover, Byrne also supervised an independent study by senior Ginger Salas for a class on Science Methods for Elementary Teachers. “[Ginger] wanted to do a more hands-on project for this paper. She devised a health and nutrition unit and presented it to girls only on a Girls Night,” Byrne said. “It was an outstanding success. She was invited back to do it again. She was able to open up the door to future students to create a service project.”

With all the club has going for it and is involved with, you believe Moulton when he says of the win: “with this award we hold our head high and say we earned this.”

And Spaulding couldn’t agree more. “It’s good to see NU involved with the community,” he said. “Other schools, it’s that they are in the community—it’s a college town. But at NU, we give back to the community.”