Partnering with local charities, MIT clubs convene alums for service and celebration.
On a delightfully sunny Saturday last November, Cordelia Price ’78, SM ’82, watched happily as a crowd of people wearing black and gray MIT alumni T-shirts assembled at a farm in Houston, Texas.
The group had come together for a day of volunteering in partnership with Plant It Forward, a local urban farming nonprofit, followed by a gathering at a nearby restaurant for food, drinks, and lively conversation. The event—the first in an MIT Alumni Association (MITAA) series dubbed Serve & Celebrate—was held by the Club of South Texas and marked the first of three such programs held in 2022 and 2023. Serve & Celebrate events offered MIT alumni in different regions the opportunity to reunite through service projects as well as a chance to connect socially at a local restaurant afterward, a welcome return to in-person gatherings after a hiatus during the pandemic.
“We know that so many MIT alumni are making an incredible impact in their communities, both through their professional work and through personal endeavors,” says Whitney T. Espich, the MITAA’s chief executive officer. “These events offer a new way for alumni to connect over this shared interest while amplifying the impact on their community.”
The Club of South Texas has a long history of community service, thanks to a dedicated team that Price now chairs. She says the Serve & Celebrate event in Houston—which involved making picnic tables, weeding and cleaning gardens, and painting dried okra to be sold as holiday ornaments—was the perfect opportunity to “do good in the name of MIT and to do it alongside other MITers.”
Rachel Lockhart Folkerts, director of the farm program at Plant It Forward, says she enjoyed working with MIT alumni. “They were honestly the best event group we had last year,” she recalls. “They were super easy to work with, and everyone was engaged and interested in everything about the organization. They also provided financial support, which has been impactful for us. We’re so appreciative that they chose to work with us.”
Serving and Celebrating Throughout the US
MIT clubs also held Serve & Celebrate events in San Diego and Philadelphia in early 2023. The California event featured a beach cleanup last February through San Diego Coastkeeper, a nonprofit committed to protecting and restoring local waterways and facilitating sustainable water management. In all, the cleanup crew of MIT alumni and friends removed nearly 2,000 pieces of debris from La Jolla Beach, including 110 cigarette butts, 572 Styrofoam containers, and 150 plastic bags and wrappers.
Steven Larky ’84, then president of the Club of San Diego, said the event was the club’s largest of the year. “And there were alums that I hadn’t seen at events before,” he says. One reason, he notes, may have been that it was a family-oriented activity, so many alumni brought their children along to lend a hand.
Following the service effort, attendees were “rewarded with margaritas and tacos,” as Larky puts it, at a local restaurant. “I would have to say a highlight was seeing the alums mingling at the restaurant and meeting new people,” he says, adding that some of those newcomers ended up joining the MIT Club of San Diego board for this year.
For the Club of the Delaware Valley, a May Serve & Celebrate event in Philadelphia also brought in new faces and more young alumni than any events in the past. The alumni partnered with Cradles to Crayons, a nonprofit that provides homeless and low-income children with the essentials, including school supplies, clothing, and more. Club president Steven Wheatman ’86 was most struck by the sheer volume of work the volunteers were able to accomplish in just one day.
Amplifying Community Impact, the MIT Way
The group in Philadelphia took on a range of projects including cleaning, sorting, and organizing boxes of donated books and clothing, as well as preparing about 100 of the new backpacks the organization fills each year with items students need such as art supplies, writing tools, and back-to-school clothing and shoes. According to Wheatman, Cradles to Crayons donates about 30,000 of these backpacks each year.
“It was so rewarding to see the vast number of books and backpacks that we completed in a single afternoon and knowing that they will help our local community,” he recalls. “As MIT’s motto is ‘mens et manus’ (mind and hand), it is important what we actually do with our hands. Our club has a lot of speaker events and tours where we exercise our minds. It is good for alums to get out and use our hands.” And being able to serve their neighbors as an MIT community made it even more special for him, he says.
“When I was a student at MIT, I was constantly impressed with what a group of students could accomplish,” he says. “To see a group of former students get together to accomplish a task in a single day was emotionally fulfilling.”
Wheatman says the volunteer work also made the subsequent social gathering at a local restaurant even more successful. “Having an activity prior to the social event helped break the ice,” he says. “When people arrived at the restaurant, they already had met others from the group and immediately may have had someone to talk to that they had worked with at the service event.”
One element that all these events had in common was the presence of Stephen Baker ’84, MArch ’88, who says being able to attend all three Serve & Celebrate gatherings was a highlight of his year as president of the Alumni Association. “Each event had a tremendous amount of positive energy: alumni were having fun meeting each other, or in some cases seeing friends and fellow volunteers for the first time in several years after the isolation of the pandemic, while also doing good work. It was great to see alumni of different ages, degree programs, and interests come together for an afternoon in service.”
The future of Serve & Celebrate is promising—the clubs that have already participated all hope to plan another event soon, and many other groups have expressed interest in adding similar programs in their own areas. So far, three events in other cities are in the works for the 2023-2024 academic year.
To find out how to host a Serve & Celebrate event with your local club, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Photo (top): A group of alumni sort clothes for donation at a Serve & Celebrate event at Cradles to Crayons in Philadelphia.
This article also appears in the November/December issue of MIT News magazine, published by MIT Technology Review.