"For as long as I can remember, volunteering has helped make my life feel whole
and kept me in touch with my passions.... In fact, volunteering has prepared me
for every professional position I've had."
Alison Gardy ('88) is a Program Officer at The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, in addition to being the leader of a new initiative called Yale Community Connect. We asked her to tell us about the mission of Yale Community Connect, how this new organization came to be, and how we can all get involved.
Describe your current project/position.
In January 2018, the Yale Alumni Nonprofit Alliance (YANA) asked me to lead Yale Community Connect, an initiative that builds ongoing relationships based on volunteering between alumni (and friends) and community-based organizations (including public schools). Our goals are to:
Strengthen the 10-year tradition of Yale Day of Service (YDoS) by helping to deliver on its expanded mission
Be useful to organizations that support and strengthen communities
Establish and sustain ongoing relationships based on volunteering with organizations
Socialize with other like-minded volunteers (Yale alumni, friends, organization partners, and others)
What brought you to this cause?
For years, YANA board member Andrew Burgie ('87) has been urging us to find a way to extend YDoS beyond a day and to make service a more consistent ritual in people's lives. We puzzled out how to do this, and I'm grateful to Andrew and the YANA board for entrusting me to spearhead the effort.
What's the philosophy of Yale Community Connect?
Our philosophy is that to volunteer on an ongoing basis is a privilege, because volunteers are guaranteed to grow in amazing ways and to feel good about helping communities grow as well. Yale Community Connect intentionally avoids the word “service” — which focuses on the good deeds of the volunteer. Instead, Community Connect emphasizes the relationship of mutual benefit and enjoyment that both volunteer and host institution experience in an ongoing relationship of connection, engagement, and resource-sharing. In short, it's a great way to have fun!
How do you perceive the issues impacting your organization will change in the next 10 years? What is the plan to respond to those changes?
As the wealth gap grows in this country and the middle class pulls apart at its seams, Yale Community Connect will counter that negative trend by multiplying opportunities for genuine mutual engagement, influence and understanding between worlds that otherwise might not connect. The health of our communities and our democracy as a whole depends on our cultivating a greater sense of "we" and responsibility toward one another. This is not a Democratic or a Republican idea. It is a bipartisan urgency. In addition, it just feels good to volunteer. Someone should do a study on volunteering and endorphin release.
The vision of Yale Community Connect is a world in which:
Communities are strengthened by increased meaningful, ongoing volunteer engagements between Yale alumni and community-based organizations
Yale is strengthened by producing alumni who have internalized the self-expectation to connect, engage, and share resources with vulnerable communities
The notion of “service,” which focus on volunteers’ good deeds, is expanded to an appreciation for the “equity of exchange” or mutual benefit that occurs in meaningful, ongoing relationships between volunteers and organizations.
Do you have a personal connection to the mission?
For as long as I can remember, volunteering has helped make my life feel whole and kept me in touch with my passions. Through volunteering, I've met amazing people, learned vital skills, gotten better bearings in my community, and assumed leadership positions that allowed me to experiment and dream big. In fact, volunteering has prepared me for every professional position I've had. For instance, professionally for over 15 years, I ran a leadership and management training fellowship for grassroots community leaders from around the world. The experience enabled me to get close to 330 remarkable leaders and their case studies involving a broad range of management issues, including the recruiting, training, and sustaining of volunteers. There is no question that my volunteer leadership with the Fulbright Association cultivated in me the vision, skills and confidence to launch and grow the fellowship program and alumni community. Previously, I'd volunteered to create and expand other alumni communities, including that of the New Jersey Scholars Program. Volunteering has been a way to express my gratitude for programs that changed my life, such as the Fulbright Program, which enabled me to investigate social change and community activism in Mexico upon graduating Yale. For ten years after that, I worked professionally as a journalist, often covering community activism here in the United States and in Mexico.
Community involvement was fired up in me from an early age. Contentious school board elections in the New Jersey suburb where I spent most of my childhood had me riveted to the polls. I remember my mother once gave me a roll of dimes and marching orders to call my friends to tell them to tell their parents to come and vote. While at Yale, I remained registered to vote in New Jersey. I'll never forget the election in which two absentee ballots saved vital public school programs from being cut. I took the power of voting--the quintessential volunteer activity--very personally. Over the years, I volunteered at the polls on election days, enjoying the collegiality and commitment to the democratic process. Most recently, I had the pleasure of volunteering as a public school captain on the Upper West Side in a City Council election. It was a great way to connect more deeply to my community and to understand better what people care about and the change they want to see.
Who has been a notable mentor?
Ken Inadomi, founding president of YANA, has been a mentor. He has skillfully created, guided, and sustained an endeavor that encapsulates the spirit and energy of the Yale that I love.
How can folks get involved?
Visit the Yale Community Connect website for a current list of volunteer opportunities.
Take our 90-second sign-in survey to be on our mailing list.
Come to a YANA meeting and learn more!
Are there other organizations in NYC you partner up with or would like to partner up with?
Partnership is key to success. When we launched Yale Community Connect, we did so in partnership with yale.NYC and Yale Day of Service. We welcome further partnerships among Yale organizations and beyond. When we encourage Yale alumni to participate in Yale Community Connect, we really mean it. The more the merrier!
What is your advice for recent grads?
Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, to what really makes you happy and what you can't live without, and pay attention to others. You can't go wrong if you are paying attention, because you will develop the skill to see many layers at once.
If you are seized with curiosity about something, follow it no matter what.
Learn as much as you can from every rough edge, every incongruous and uncomfortable moment; they are portals to self-awareness.
Cherish kindness. It has nothing to do with weakness or a need to please or fuzzy judgment or an inability to lead. Kindness is incredibly powerful.