Teacher Tracie Benally ’19 faces a steady stream of challenges in her daily effort to educate her students, especially as the pandemic ravages the Navajo reservation she calls home. Still, she has big dreams for her students and a vision for a better, more culturally responsive public education system.
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for the spring 2021 semester.
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Helping Hands: Alumnae in Extraordinary Times
On any normal afternoon, Elizabeth Brown ’93 would be getting ready to teach yoga at a local studio or to drive to a long list of clients’ homes in and around the Boston area for private lessons. Times have changed, though—at least for now—and instead of meeting fellow yoga lovers in person, Brown has gotten creative, using online platforms to guide her students, including Smithies from around the world, through a series of poses and breathing exercises from the comfort of her own home.
“Everyone is experiencing so much anxiety right now,” Brown said. “For an hour or so a few times a week, I try to get people to focus on other parts of life—the body, the heart, the mind—to keep ourselves steady. We need a sense of community and togetherness now more than ever, and if I can do my part to bring people some joy for a little while, that’s great. I’m going to do it.”
It’s a refrain being echoed by alumnae around the world. With most people self-isolating or staying home to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, Smithies like Brown are stepping up to offer their talents, creativity, services and expertise to not only stay social and maintain a sense of community but also to help those in need.
Immediately after it was announced that students would have to leave campus, for example, alumnae began contributing to a Student Emergency Aid Fund, So far, more than 500 alumnae have donated in excess of $66,000 to support Smith students’ financial needs as they continue their spring semester studies away from campus.
Beyond Smith’s Grécourt Gates, alumnae are, among other things, hand sewing protective masks for health-care workers, holding fundraisers for local food pantries and teaching free online classes. Musician Alice Howe ’13 held her first Facebook Live concert for fans and friends on March 26 and donated 25 percent of the proceeds from the show to MusiCares, which provides health-care and financial resources to musicians during times of need. Emily Frank ’93 is offering free career counseling sessions every Friday afternoon. Others have set up regular online meetings with fellow alumnae to simply check in with one another, share their experiences of self-quarantining and offer a few kind words or a bit of good news.
“The outpouring of support—in so many different ways—from our community has been swift, steady and sure,” said Denise Wingate Materre ’74, vice president for alumnae relations at Smith. “Our community is standing together and I am in awe.”
In Roslindale, Massachusetts, seventh-grade science teacher Maria Vugrin Citrin ’95 has mobilized a cadre of volunteers to put together care packages and deliver food to local families in need. She got the idea after her school, the Richard Murphy School in nearby Dorchester, closed earlier in the month. “I was concerned for my kids,” Citrin said. “I worried about the students and families who couldn’t leave their houses to get to school meal sites. I worried about the support being pulled out from under these amazing kids.”
So from a desk by her living room window, Citrin began brainstorming ways to help. She created an online form where people could anonymously request food. After spreading the word, she began hearing from local cafeterias, stores and restaurants who were eager to help. In the first 10 days, they ended up donating three vans worth of fresh bread, vegetables, meats, cereals and snacks that would otherwise be discarded. In one night, Citrin and other volunteers packed up 25 bags of food. In the past couple of weeks, Citrin said, she has been able to help more than 80 families. “There was already a great need for my students and their families to have access to quality food,” she said. “This crisis has only made the need greater than ever.”
The response from community members has been heartwarming, Citrin said. One woman, whose family relies on her disability income, sent Citrin this message: “I want to thank you and the ‘secret Santa’ who dropped off a wonderful bag of groceries and toiletries for us today. Many thanks from the bottom of our hearts. You are all wonderful.”
Best-selling author Tosca Lee ’92 finds great comfort in telling stories and connecting with her readers, so when people began self-isolating she created “Storytime with Tosca Lee” as a way to bring together people who share a love of reading and to create a sense of community.
Every night at 9, Lee props up her iPhone on the kitchen counter or on the coffee table in her living room, and reads a chapter from one of her books. She then spends some time chatting with viewers. The experience, Lee said, is a way to “present a familiar face to spend time with—some constancy in this time of rising anxiety and rapid change.” On average, Lee said, between 600 and 1,500 people join her storytime sessions.
For Lee, storytelling is the perfect antidote to the stress and uncertainty of the times. “We turn to stories to escape pain, boredom, stress or to relax,” she said. “Stories give us empathy, sometimes make us laugh, let us adventure safely and vicariously, and inspire us, so they’re particularly helpful during times of anxiety.”
Yoga instructor Elizabeth Brown says the same is true for yoga and meditation, noting how appreciative people have been of her Zoom classes. Her sessions regularly attract beginners as well as seasoned yoga enthusiasts from Canada, Washington, Oregon, California, Nepal and New Zealand. “I think we’re all finding that we need human connection more than ever,” she said. “It’s really powerful.”
Lee echoes Brown’s sentiment and says she is particularly proud of and inspired by the stories she’s heard of alumnae helping their neighbors, communities, friends and family during these difficult days. “I’m not surprised,” she said. “Smithies have an extraordinary sense of social consciousness. I would expect nothing less.”