Effort to help WMU students in need sees exponential growth, support

Contact: Erin Flynn

Students pick up free groceries at the Wesley Center, where Community Student Connection has set up shop to offer daily assistance.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Five months ago, as signs of the COVID-19 pandemic first began emerging in Michigan, Dr. Michael Famiano knew he had to do something to help students in need at Western Michigan University. Flanked by a handful of faculty members and students, the physics professor began organizing free grocery handouts.

"We were handing out cookies from the back of my car," laughs Famiano, thinking back to the group's humble beginnings. Once or twice a week, they would gather donations and buy food for students to collect from Famiano's mobile pantry. Amid the growing health and economic crisis, many international students—unable to travel home or find new income sources because of visa restrictions—increasingly found themselves in dire situations. WMU faculty, staff, students and community members stepped up, quickly expanding capacity to hand out food at multiple sites every day. Eventually, his garage was overflowing with groceries. The operation needed somewhere to expand, and the Wesley Center on campus answered the call, opening its doors for storage and distribution.

Dr. Michael Famiano stands with his arms folded across his chest.

Dr. Michael Famiano started the group that has grown into Community Student Connection.

The added space, as well as a partnership with Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes and help from International Campus Ministry, gave way to a massive expansion of the project. From March to August, the group grew to more than 100 volunteers who have given out approximately 8,000 bags of groceries. It has also expanded services to offer rent assistance, raising nearly $200,000 in donations to cover an estimated 400 months of rent over the summer for WMU students both in Kalamazoo and as far away as Florida and Colorado. Local businesses and even international organizations have also joined the cause, donating supplies and funding to keep the effort going.

"One of our philosophies is we never say ‘no’ to a problem. That doesn't mean we're going to solve every problem, but we at least accept the problem as our own," Famiano says. "We treat all of these students like our own kids."

The organization is still looking for donations to support rental assistance, hoping to raise another $25,000 by the end of summer, and it's expanding in order to keep up with the growing need. Under its new official name, Community Student Connection, the group is seeking nonprofit status. A new board has been established, led by social work graduate student Cressie Vargo.

"My vision for the organization is to be literally what the name says, that community-student connection," she says. "What I'm looking at is how can we keep this momentum going? Building that strong community presence, building a strong volunteer network and especially collaborating with community partners, I think, are key to the long-term success of the program."

Vegetables in a garden.

The Wesley Center donates fresh produce from its garden to hand out to students.

Paul Mailloux, licensed master social worker and instructor at WMU, will serve as co-chair of the board.

"I'm sure there will be limits, but right now it's got a really strong grassroots feel. Let's give people what they need, not just what we think they want or what we've determined they want … and that's the purity of the cause right there," says Mailloux, who has seen firsthand the impact the organization can have. In one instance, he helped a student move to emergency housing secured by another volunteer in a matter of 24 hours.

"Within a very short amount of time this student, who was under an enormous amount of stress, had a place to at least have some respite and know they were going to be okay. That experience was so many people coming together without egos or agendas and doing something that was so necessary. I think it speaks volumes for the Western community," he says. "It's just got me charged up. It's what we should be doing."

Student-Led by Design

A student packs food into a suitcase to take home with her.

A number of students hold positions on the Community Student Connection board, and many others serve in volunteer roles on the ground collecting, sorting and facilitating distribution of food and financial aid.

"It's a really unique opportunity," Mailloux says. "We like to have students be in positions where they are actively learning. Having students in leadership positions and participating while offering our guidance is by design."

Vargo's involvement will also serve as her field placement for the upcoming semester, allowing her to implement the skills she's developed in the Master of Social Work program while also putting her passion into practice.

"I'm a huge advocate of service learning," Vargo says. "My goal is helping people succeed, whatever that looks like for them. Making sure that their basic needs are met and connecting them to the resources to meet those needs."

Benjamin Famiano, a board member and student in the Haworth College of Business' food and consumer packaged goods marketing and leadership and business strategy programs, is also gaining hands-on experience through record keeping and connecting students to rental assistance.

Students hold bags of food given away by Community Student Connection.

"Knowing I am able to relieve part of the stress in this already stressful time for my fellow students is what makes this so important to me," says Benjamin Famiano, who also happens to be Michael Famiano's son. He says it's been fun seeing the effort grow from his parents' garage into the organization it is today. "I think people want to help … people who are less fortunate, especially in this period of time, where we all need to stick together—while maintaining social distancing—in order to make it through the pandemic.

Learn more about Community Student Connection and ways to volunteer or donate on the organization's Facebook page.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.

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