Emerson students embrace St. Francis House volunteer work

Elly Bryant and Olivienne Redding at their volunteer shift holding “kindness flower” made in the art studio for guests.

Photo: Courtesy of Megan Quinones

Elly Bryant and Olivienne Redding at their volunteer shift holding “kindness flower” made in the art studio for guests.

By Maeve Lawler

Three Emerson students participated in the college’s orientation volunteer event at St. Francis House, the largest day shelter for those experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts, located in downtown Boston. 

The event was organized by Madelyn Domek ‘23, who started volunteering with the shelter in late August of 2020. First years Marine Savour and Hailey Faith Collier attended with sophomore Olivienne Redding. 

Despite a pause in volunteer opportunities during the early stages of COVID-19, St. Francis remained open to guests—those unhoused and experiencing homelessness or poverty—every day during the pandemic. Volunteers are now accepted in a limited capacity. 

Domek works within the Food Services and Expressive Therapy Department, which offers guests the opportunity to gather in the Margaret Stewart Lindsay Art Studio at St. Francis and create art in various mediums.

“The programs that [St. Francis House] offers for individuals facing homelessness and food insecurity are just unparalleled in the Boston area,” Domek said. “They really put forth tremendous effort into helping people move to life beyond the streets. I really respected that and I wanted to be a part of facilitating that positive change.” 

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After volunteering independently at the shelter, Domek came up with the idea of fostering a connection between Emerson and St. Francis House when she saw the lack of students helping the homeless.

“I felt like there was sort of a missing piece with Emerson College, because it being just down the street, it didn’t make sense to me that there weren’t more Emerson students signing up to volunteer or just at their various events,” Domek said. “Something that really keeps people from volunteering it’s not that they don’t want to do it, it’s just that it’s hard to carve time out of your schedule to do something like that.”

Domek worked with Jenna Coviello, the program coordinator for Student Engagement and Leadership, to encourage students to volunteer at St. Francis. Coviello was interested in integrating Domek’s idea as part of Emerson’s orientation and helped her expand it.

“I presented [my idea] to some of the faculty on the board for orientation, just giving them an overview,” Domek said. “I really relied on the wonderful orientation leaders. They really helped boost engagement with the students for the event.”

To promote the event, Domek used both word of mouth and social media. She also did an “Instagram takeover” on the college’s Instagram to advertise the event. 

“I had some spots open before I did the social media take over and then after it, they just filled up immediately,” Domek said. “It made me so happy to be part of a community that’s just so ready to get involved. [After orientation,] people walked away with new friends that they could go to the dining hall with and friends that they can go back to St. Francis House and volunteer with.” 

Domek said she intended to send a message to Emerson students regarding the importance of volunteering locally. 

“For the Emerson community, I hope that there’s more of a feeling of ‘my actions have power and they’re impactful,’” Domek said. 

Within the shelter, volunteer positions are available in the Food Services and Expressive Therapy Department, with occasional opportunities to work in the Clothing Department, which is expected to reopen in the middle of fall at full capacity. 

Each department offers a unique experience for volunteers. Megan Quinones, the volunteer services coordinator for St. Francis, describes the Food Services Department as a “fast-paced” environment. Volunteers interact with a lot of people in a particular time frame while serving guests daily meals offered at the shelter.

Quinones said St. Francis attracts a wide array of volunteers, including college students, teachers, and retirees. 

Savour, a visual media arts major, volunteered in the Food Services Department and described the experience as fulfilling and a reality check.

“[This allows us to] watch our beliefs and make sure we still consider each person we meet first as an individual as opposed to someone separate from ourselves,” Savour said. “We are so privileged to live the lives we do, so why wouldn’t we take a couple hours out of our week to help others?” 

The Expressive Therapy Department has a capacity of six people at time, Quinones said. 

“A lot of the time, [guests] want to go in for that one on one connection with our amazing art therapist, Gurleen [Anand],” she said. “We love to plug our volunteers in this space and just see the relationships that are able to develop between them and our guests.” 

Redding, a marketing communications major who volunteered in the Expressive Therapy Department, said she was inclined to become involved in not only the Emerson community but also the greater Boston community. 

While helping to cut out paper hearts for arts and crafts, Redding had the opportunity to closely interact with some of the guests. 

“We did art, we talked to them, and we just really learned about their life,” Redding said. “I definitely want to incorporate going there at least once a week. It was a humbling experience and just felt really good to give back so close to where we are.”

St. Francis House is also working to make the Clothing Department a more dignified space, Quinones said. 

“Right now this is a lot of sorting and organizing because we’re aiming to re-open our Clothing Department mid-fall at the capacity it operated in prior to COVID-19,” Quinones said.

“When that space re-opens, it is going to be almost like a store experience for our guests where volunteers assist them,” she continued. “Guests can find clothes that fit their style instead of us assuming what they want to wear.”

Collier, a theater and performance major, volunteered in the Clothing Department, where she sorted and organized clothes for the guests to choose from.   

“I felt that it was my job as a citizen in America to give back to the community,” Collier said.

Quinones hopes to expand the volunteer capacity at St. Francis and implement more community service opportunities. She is passionate about helping those who are unhoused and providing people with the individualized support they need. 

“Volunteer services at St. Francis House really exist in a way to support and uplift the various volunteer locations we have throughout our day shelter,” Quinones said.

Collier emphasized the importance of the volunteer program at the shelter, and the services that give guests an outlet and a distraction from everything that goes on during their day.

“It just provides [the guests] with the necessities they need to just go on throughout the day or the week,” Collier said. “I got such an enriching experience out of it and learned so much from the people around me and the hard work that they do, so I would definitely help out again.”.

While volunteering, Quinones emphasized the importance of treating guests with dignity. 

“[St. Francis House] acts as a space of refuge for those who are not only unhoused or experiencing homelessness, but also those who are low income or are in need of any of the services we offer,” Quinones said.

Danita Clark, a St. Francis House guest since 2000, said she visits the Expressive Therapy Department periodically. Clark is also involved with Boston Common Art, a weekly program offered by Common Cathedral, providing a space for unhoused people to foster their artistic skills during gatherings at Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street. 

Clark got a bachelor’s degree in architecture in Texas, and specializes in art involving buildings. With support from her peers, Clark was able to succeed in her classes and develop her drawing skills. Now, she enjoys cultivating new ideas with the flexible hours St. Francis House offers. 

“I had to work hard to improve and keep up with the other students,” Clark said. “I was good at math and English. [Now,] I have a lot of ideas to bring into play.”  

Another Expressive Therapy guest, Wedel Michael Tuquabo, has been visiting St. Francis House for approximately four months. 

He said he particularly enjoys drawing and coloring but tries to do everything. Tuquabo’s focus and dedication prompts him to work on his art for up to three hours at a time. Much of his current work is Halloween-themed, which the shelter plans to use as Halloween decor. 

“When I start, I have to finish,” Tuquabo said

Quinones and Domek enjoy helping others serve in their community, and support St. Francis House’s mission to provide for those in need of their services. 

“I just really want to emphasize that St. Francis House is a very welcoming space,” Domek said. “It’s not something to turn away from, it’s something to turn towards.” 

Domek sees the importance of volunteering on a local level, as it has a ripple effect in the larger community. 

“A lot of issues I care about are so big and global,” Domek said. “I can never make an impact on them. So starting at the local, community-level, you really see that change immediately and you’re really impacting people.”

Domek plans to host another St. Francis House volunteering event for next year’s orientation, while also working to host a similar event in cooperation with Emerson College Best Buddies—a club that works to support members of the Intellectual and Developmental Disability community—during this school year.