WashU Engage Chicago recently hosted a Day of Service to unite alumni around a common goal and to celebrate the legacy of Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton and Risa Zwerling Wrighton. Participants had the opportunity to participate in four volunteer projects across the city and glean information and resources on how to continue to engage in Chicago as WashU alumni.
WashU Engage is an initiative co-led by the Gephardt Institute and the Washington University Alumni Association which aligns with the university’s commitment to supporting habits of lifelong learning and leadership for alumni. This series of civic and community engagement opportunities serves local communities and encourages alumni to engage in the cities where they live and work. A pilot program in Chicago, spearheaded by John Crosby, AB ’69, is expanding the scope of WashU Engage to provide opportunities for civic engagement through service, learning, and connection throughout the year.
With over 55 volunteers at the organized events and several others reporting independent volunteer time, the Day of Service was an unequivocal success. Volunteers had the option to play bingo with residents of a senior independent housing facility with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, prepare and serve lunch for community members living in local shelters with Breakthrough Urban Ministries, or serve at either the Fed with Grace Food Pantry or the Share Food Share Love Food Pantry.
Claire Pluard, AB ’12, (pictured left) was the site leader for the “Bingo Breakfast.” She serves as the Government Grants and Advocacy Specialist for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago and has been active in WashU Engage since its inception. Claire reflected on how her WashU experience shaped her current civic engagement, her professional goals, and her involvement in WashU Engage. Read the full interview below.
Q: Describe your involvement at WashU. How would you characterize your experience? What student groups/activities were you a part of, and how did those activities prepare you for your post-grad life?
A: During my time at WashU, I filled my days with extracurricular pursuits related to social justice and community service. I was a Gephardt Institute intern, an Each One Teach One tutor, the Community Service Chair of CS40, and a Dance Marathon (DM) Executive Director. These were my passions and led me to pursue non-profit fundraising when I graduated. After managing DM, I was equipped to be the lead on multi-million dollar grants that required aligning different parties. To this day, I use the strategic communications and design skills I got as a Gephardt Institute intern. Whatever the skill is, I am carried by the idea that we can improve the world we live in.
Q: Tell us about your professional life. What has your post-grad journey looked like, and what are you currently involved in now? Do you have any post-grad advice for current students?
A: After graduation, I dabbled in baking and education until I landed my first position at Catholic Charities of Chicago, a large social service agency. As the Government Grants and Advocacy Specialist, I developed proposals for government funding and worked directly with officials and legislators to advocate for our clients and services. Driven by a deep seated desire to learn, I am pursuing my MBA in Social Impact at Northwestern while still at Catholic Charities. Currently, I’m part of our Quality Improvement department managing data processes and continuous improvement for the services that help our clients. Without knowing what the future holds, it’s hard to make career decisions. I still feel the wonder and unsure nature of next steps. You can plan and mitigate risk, but I firmly believe that your best bet is to follow what makes you excited. Passion will yield more results than a well laid out plan.
Q: How and why did you decide to get involved in WashU Engage? Why do you value alumni engagement, community-building, and service?
A: I still feel very connected to the WashU campus. Undergrad was one of my most joyous and influential times. My defining extracurricular experiences at WashU were so important because of their ties with social justice and the amazing students who enriched that time. I jumped at the opportunity to establish a community in Chicago that would bring those two experiences back together. It was early in the WashU Engage process, Alumni Relations was recruiting alumni for the first WashU Engage, and my connection with Catholic Charities made a ready connection for to create a volunteer opportunity. Working together towards a common purpose allows alumni to unite around a common cause. It changes the conversation from networking to engagement, and WashU students from all decades can return to their St. Louis campus roots, where we all want to make a positive mark on the world around us.
Q: Tell us about the recent Day of Service. What did the event look like? What were your responsibilities?
A: For the past four years, WashU Engage alumni volunteers have visited the Catholic Charities Brendan Hayes Senior living facility in Englewood to host “Bingo Breakfasts” with its residents. Coffee, juice and bagels are served to energize our annual Bingo fest. Following the “competition”, it is our tradition to have a discussion with the residents about how they are doing personally as economic and urban challenges affect aging adults. Englewood happens to have one of the highest crime rates in Chicago, which has impacted its schools, groceries and environment, including the beautiful 60 acre Ogden Park that is next door to Brendan Hayes. Last year, when we asked our guests if there was anything we could do to help, a lady named Barbara asked if we could get the Chicago Park District to provide older adults with activities in the park as there were none then.
In response, I organized with the older adults to advocate for them with their Alderman and the Park District. On March 9, at this year’s “Bingo Breakfast”, Barbara came to play and greeted us by announcing, “You did it!” She reported that Ogden Park now hosts free classes weekly for older adults to dance and exercise. Her robust thank you validated all the effort and engagement around WashU. It was so rewarding! Now in future years we just need to keep working to maintain the relationship and identify needs that we can help meet for our older adults. Bingo!
Q: How can alumni best get involved in future WashU Engage events?
A: WashU Engage has grown and adapted over the last four years. Events are year round and include volunteer opportunities, policy discussions, book clubs, a Welcome to Chicago evening, and holiday events. We are thrilled to keep working towards engaging our community and current alumni. Keep up with us through email and on the Alumni Development website here.
WashU Engage has hosted projects in the following cities: Austin, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Honolulu, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Twin Cities, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Washington D.C.