Celebrating its 40th anniversary as a campus institution, SPUD continues to thrive on service, solidarity and social justice.
By Laura Porter
Inigo Soriano ’09 joined the Student Programs for Urban Development (SPUD) in the fall of his second year at Holy Cross because he wanted to live the reality of his faith. The organization offered him more than a few options. Through SPUD, students can choose to volunteer with more than 40 community partners: social agencies, service programs or schools in the Greater Worcester community. On at least a weekly basis, students tutor, feed the hungry, share their skills and, perhaps most importantly, develop relationships through “direct contacts with those who are marginalized”—as the organization’s mission statement attests.
Soriano signed up to visit Almost Home, a small program under the aegis of Dismas House, a non-profit group that provides former prisoners with transitional housing and services. At Almost Home, located on the grounds of the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction in West Boylston, men with substance abuse issues who are on parole spend four months preparing to re-enter mainstream society.
“Somebody said to me, ‘Whatever you have done for the least of my brothers, you have done for me,’” says Soriano. “I looked it up in the Gospels and found it listed in the Works of Mercy. ‘Visit the imprisoned’ was another one of them. It really stuck out—I decided I wanted to live that work of mercy.”
Twice a week, Soriano accompanies other students to West Boylston, where they cook and share dinner with the 12 men in the program. They talk and exchange stories, doing “what friends would do—you hang out and have a good time.”
Almost Home program director Meridith Milesi notes that this family atmosphere reflects the heart of the Dismas goal to help “the guys integrate into the community and teach the community about reintegration.” The role of Holy Cross students has been “crucial”—and lasting, she says. “A lot of the guys will come back just to have dinner with the kids.”
Carlie Geiger ’08 has visited the Vernon Hill School on Providence Street twice a week for three years. Along with 20-to-30 other Holy Cross students, she works with the children on a one-on-one basis or in a group setting. And, taking her involvement a step further, Geiger helped to spearhead a book drive that resulted in the donation of thousands of books to the elementary school last spring.
“They’re wonderful role models,” principal Joanna Bowolick says of the College students. “We call them not just students but mentors. I’m truly, truly blessed.”
As it celebrates its 40th anniversary this spring, the SPUD program can take credit for changing the lives of hundreds of Holy Cross students like Soriano and Geiger—young people who have been deeply affected by their involvement in the Worcester community.
In the late 1960s, SPUD emerged from “the growing awareness on the part of [a few] students of suffering and injustice in the city,” says current SPUD faculty adviser, Marybeth Kearns-Barrett ’84, associate chaplain and director of service and social justice programs. It has long since become the largest student activity on campus—and now involves nearly 800 participants, close to a third of the College’s total enrollment. Each fall, students wait in line outside the ballroom in Hogan Campus Center to sign up for programs; the event has become so popular that, at the beginning of this school year, only 50 people could be admitted to the recruiting fair at a time.
Through its mission “to seek social justice through service in solidarity,” SPUD continues to foster a deep and abiding connection between College and community, the ideal and the pragmatic; it is the exemplification of the faith-based initiative.
Rev. Michael C. McFarland, S.J., president of the College, quotes a talk given in 2000 by the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., on “the importance of producing a ‘well-educated solidarity’” in students. “He went on to say,” stresses Fr. McFarland, that: “‘Personal involvement with innocent suffering, with the injustice others suffer, is the catalyst for solidarity which then gives rise to intellectual inquiry and moral reflection.’ That is what SPUD has done so effectively.”
Patrick E. Clancy ’68, the acknowledged founder of SPUD, and his classmates could not have predicted the endurance of their effort—as he wrote in a March 1968 edition of The Crusader—“to address ourselves to the human problems that must ultimately be the measure of our education.”
Already involved in service projects, Clancy spent the summer after his third year coordinating volunteers in Worcester neighborhoods for the Commonwealth Service Corps. He recalls that the experience gave him a deeper perspective about the inner workings of the city, leading “some of us to organize new volunteer organizations with these community leaders and the organizations in their neighborhoods.”
Their concern was twofold.
“First, a number of us felt that our volunteer experiences weren’t well-grounded in the Worcester community,” Clancy says. “Second, we were considering the quality of the volunteer experience itself. We wanted to be useful—and also learn something from the experience.”
That first year—and for some time afterwards—SPUD was a consortium-wide program, drawing 100-150 students from Holy Cross as well as other Worcester colleges. The commitment was intensive—as much as 10 hours a week. Regular meetings were held to divide volunteers and ensure follow through. Students were responsible for their own transportation.
“We just said, ‘Here’s where you have to get, now get there,’” remembers Clancy.
As the organization evolved and expanded in the 1970s, it became more Holy Cross-centered. An unpredictable old station wagon used to ferry students to agencies around the city gave way to a fleet of vans. The willingness of successive generations of students to revisit the structure, purpose and goals of SPUD has led to the constant development of its mission and its commitment to the Worcester community.
In the process, SPUD has emerged as an integral facet of the Holy Cross ethos.
“Over the last 40 years, the SPUD program has helped shape the culture at Holy Cross in ways that are very important to our Jesuit mission,” says Fr. McFarland. “It has brought students in contact with the poor and those living on the margins of society—inspiring students not only to reach out to help those people, but also to reflect more deeply about our society and its structure and values and about their own place in the world and how they want to develop it.”
In many ways, SPUD’s success is due precisely to its leaders’ willingness to think deeply.
“We’re aiming high,” says Kearns-Barrett. “We’re shooting for solidarity, not community service. We stand with people who are poor—we don’t just observe them. We ask ourselves, ‘Can I challenge myself to see that their problems are my problems?’”
For a program to be considered part of SPUD, she continues, “there has to be a potential for a relationship. We don’t want students doing office work or fundraising for a program, though that has happened as a result of the relationship. They have to have a chance to really hear another person’s story and share it.”
Some of the relationships between the College and the community are decades old. SPUD volunteers have been serving food at the Mustard Seed and visiting with women escaping abusive relationships at Abby’s House for 30 years. SPUD has included a Big Brother/Big Sister program for close to 30 years—though it was not at first affiliated with the national organization. Holy Cross students volunteered at Great Brook Valley in the 1960s—and they are still there. They have gone to Plumley Village for eight or nine years. And then there are new community partners like the African Community Education Center, where students work with refugees at three different sites.
“We tend to add more programs than we take away,” says Kearns-Barrett. “When a program is working, it stays with us.”
Student initiative and leadership are key elements in the success not only of individual programs but also of SPUD as a whole. A core of student interns, led by a head intern, meets regularly with the many program directors in small groups; the program directors in turn supervise their own volunteers. The interns also coordinate recruitment night, an orientation for program directors, campus-wide events and an annual three-day retreat held in late August for training and intensive discussion. In addition, there is a considerable amount of support from the Chaplains’ Office. In the fall, each student leader receives a manual detailing his or her duties and providing extensive information about the program. Throughout the school year, the chaplains host discussion groups that give students the opportunity for more contemplative reflection about the larger issues at stake.
Four Decades of Service , continued >>>
Volunteering at Holy Cross