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The Bonner Program Spreads Its Roots at Chatham

group tree digging planting
In  2014, the Corella & Bertram Bonner Foundation arrived at Chatham, with the mission of financially supporting undergraduate students–known as Bonner Leaders–who do volunteer work with local nonprofits. The program enables students to stay with the same nonprofit throughout their college tenure, giving them extended mentorship as they grow into assets of their organization. Many nonprofits in the area were eager to work with Chatham students again, having had them as successful volunteers in the past.

Sarah Barbeau ’20 is a first-year student and Bonner Leader studying sustainability. She works with Off the Floor Pittsburgh, a furniture bank in the North Side. They help disadvantaged families get furniture that otherwise would’ve been thrown away.  “All the furniture is donated; some surplus stuff is given by Levin’s. For the most part we do deliveries, and it’s usually volunteer-run by churches or students. Most people are super appreciative. I interact with them the most when they’re picking stuff up,” she says.

Sarah helps schedule deliveries and file new referrals. Due to high staff turnover this fall, having Sarah as a consistent member of the team has helped them immensely. And she finds the work rewarding:

“We have the statistics on the race, the age, and why the people need the furniture—but it comes down to: you have a need, we’re going to provide you with what you need.”

The Bonner program accepts first-years and sophomores, who go on a “speed date” with participating nonprofits at the beginning of their first year in the program. After talking with each representative for five minutes or so, students rank their favorites while nonprofits do the same for the students. It’s been a great system so far, as everyone has been matched up with his or her first or second choice. This year, there are 13 Bonner Leaders at Chatham.

Skylar Benjamin ’16 joined the program in its pilot year as a junior. This is her second year of working with Steel City Squash—a nonprofit that offers an after-school academic program to students in the Hill District, motivating and rewarding the kids by teaching them the sport of squash. She’s a senior now, but wishes the program had been around since she was a first-year.

“It would’ve been great to have that experience as a first-year student, to come in and work with whomever, and connect to Pittsburgh. When I left for summer vacation last year, the kids handed me this card that they wrote thanking me and it was so cute—I cried when I read it. They didn’t realize I would be coming back this year! When you’re working with people who may lack stability in their own lives, being able to provide that in some small way is really important.”

As an exercise science major and a student athlete, Skylar tries to impart what she’s learned about health and nutrition in a way that 10-to-13-year-olds can use in their lives. Her work has given her perspective on health and wellness in a more general sense within the context of social economics. “I’m really surprised how fulfilling and rewarding this experience has been—I’ve changed the kids’ lives, but they’ve changed mine too. It’s helped me check my privilege, look at things a little differently, and recognize all these things I’ve taken for granted,” she says.

In addition to their on-site work, the Bonner Leaders meet every two weeks to volunteer at other locations or speak with professionals in the field. Sometimes professors are brought in to talk about issues involved in their volunteer experience. These meetings enrich the students’ understanding of the complex difficulties that their target populations face. Sarah notes, “When we get together as a group, we don’t just talk about our sites, we talk about all different kinds of things—the larger issues, professional settings, about voting—it’s service oriented, with perspective on issues that affect all of us. After each, we realize we all have more to give back.”

The Bonner Program offers a unique and enriching opportunity to work with a single nonprofit for four years. There are 13 nonprofits offering a variety of services to very different populations, with the hope to pull in even more as the program grows. If you’re interested,
apply here or contact Emily Fidago for more information.