Willimantic, Conn. – Because of its commitment to disabled adults who live in the High Chase Residential Center in Willington, People Helping People (PHP) — a student club at Eastern Connecticut State University — won one of two statewide “student group” community service awards on April 14. Student representatives of PHP accepted a Connecticut Higher Education Community Service Award at the State Capitol, given by the Office of Higher Education.
While residents with physical and developmental disabilities at High Chase do not require a full-time nursing staff, they are unable to live independently and would otherwise be homeless. In a rural setting miles away from cultural attractions, High Chas is an isolated community that sees little social interaction from the outside world.
“Receiving this award is such an honor as the clients at High Chase have been through so much,” said Jeannine Gemma, vice president of PHP and a senior majoring in social work. “I am so glad that we are able to bring happiness to their lives.”
For the past seven years, PHP has organized a group of students to visit High Chase every week during the academic year. From socializing and playing games to bringing residents on field trips to Mystic Aquarium or to Eastern’s campus for lunch, PHP provides High Chase residents with a high point they can count on every week.
“I have been volunteering at High Chase for my four years at Eastern,” said Gemma. “Not only have I grown as a leader, I have created so many friendships there that volunteering at High Chase feels like home.”
Over the years, students have noticed a change in the 30 residents at High Chase. In PHP’s nomination, Kim Silcox, director of Eastern’s Center for Community Engagement (CCE), wrote, “Many of the residents didn’t expect the students to return week after week.” After being let down throughout their lives, residents admittedly have trust issues. However, as the group of Eastern students continues to return, “The number of residents spending time with the students has grown from only a handful to nearly all of them. In addition, residents who were very shy and almost never spoke now greet the students and converse until the Eastern van leaves.”
PHP is the largest club at Eastern dedicated to volunteerism in the Windham area. “PHP is like a dedicated family of volunteers,” said Gemma. Last year, students volunteered more than 2,000 hours through weekly and individual programs. Silcox added, “Eastern could not be more proud of People Helping People and its members for their commitment to social justice, community service and the betterment of our world.”
In addition to volunteering with other community-based organizations, PHP develops events that raise money to support efforts in Haiti and Ecuador, as well as for cancer survivors, autism awareness and other causes.
“Most of the committed volunteers from this club stay with it for all four years at Eastern,” said Silcox. “Many have gone on to work for non-profits, social service agencies and corporations that have a focus on community development.”