May 24, 2023

PU Alumni Take Time Out from Reunions Revelry to Support Local Nonprofits

By Donald Gilpin

Princeton University Reunions, which will get underway later this week, call to mind images of colorful, high-spirited gatherings — eating, drinking, dancing, and marching in the  P-rade.

Less conspicuous perhaps, but an increasingly significant component of the reunions experience for many Princeton alumni are community service projects, and this year returning alumni will be partnering with five local nonprofits on an unprecedented scale.

The projects will take place at the Rise Thrift Store in Hightstown from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 25; at the Princeton YMCA on Thursday from 1:30 to 4 p.m. with the Princeton Kindness Food Project; and on Friday at the Lewis Center for the Arts, 122 Alexander Street on the Princeton University campus, where hundreds of returning alumni and guests are expected to be working with Womanspace, HomeWorks, and Kids Against Hunger.

Returning for his 40th reunion, Gene Chollett, a 1983 Princeton University graduate, is one of the leaders in planning these community service projects for his class, six other classes, and graduate school alumni.

“When we gather at our reunion, I think it’s a wonderful thing to have community service be a part of that gathering,” said Chollett, emphasizing the University motto of “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” “To incorporate a community service project within our reunion gatherings is very consistent with what we do 365 days out of the year across the world as alumni.”

He continued, “We haven’t done this on the scale we’re doing it this year, and doing it together provides a tremendous experience for alumni and guests at reunions. People love to do service projects — and why not? We’re making a big community service project a part of the reunions DNA for the classes from their first reunion to their 50th.”

At Rise, the largest social service agency and food pantry in eastern Mercer County, the alumni volunteers are working on an ongoing project to improve the appearance of the outside of the thrift store and to clean and organize inside the store. 

“We are deeply thankful to these exceptional alumni for their unwavering commitment to beautifying our thrift store and contributing to the overall revitalization of downtown Hightstown,” Rise Executive Director Leslie Koppel wrote in an email. “Through their thoughtful contributions, including the purchase of new exterior planters and their skilled planting, they are enhancing the visual appeal of our store, creating a more vibrant and welcoming environment for all.”

Princeton Kindness Food Project President Asha Gurunathan explained that the Princeton University alumni participants would be bringing perishable and nonperishable food items to the Princeton YMCA on Thursday afternoon.  They will put the food into bags to distribute to people who come to pick up food either at the Y or at Redding Circle.

“People just come and take what they need,” said Gurunathan. “This help makes a lot of difference in providing food to those who need it and in spreading more news about our organization. We appreciate their help.” The Kindness Food Project serves 200 food trays every week.

At Friday’s 10 a.m. community service event in the Wallace Dance Building and Theater Forum of the Lewis Center, volunteers will be working with Womanspace in filling dozens of backpacks and other containers with items for victims of domestic violence situations. 

“Womanspace is delighted to have been selected by Princeton University alumni to be one of the partnering community organizations for their Reunions Weekend community service project,” Womanspace Vice President for Development and Communication Erin Hartshorn wrote in an email. “Their generosity will be greatly appreciated by the survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault that we serve.”

Chollett explained how with Womanspace, as with all of the nonprofits, the alumni went to the organization leaders and asked how they could help. “We said, ‘We have some financial resources, some creative resources, some hands and hearts.  What can we do for you? What kind of project can we create? What do you need?’” said Chollett.  For Womanspace it was emergency kits with blankets, some toys and food for the children, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and feminine products.

“When the Womanspace workers are going out on emergency calls they’ll be able to hand a bag to the victim,” Chollett said. “And the police stations have agreed to have emergency kits on hand. When a woman shows up they’ll be able to reach into that tote bag and say ‘Here’s something for you.’”

Also at the Lewis Center on Friday, alumni and guests will be working with HomeWorks Trenton Inc., an after-school residential program serving marginalized high school girls, to create hundreds of packages of items needed by the students as they enter the summer months; and with Kids Against Hunger, packing up thousands of meals that can be distributed locally or around the world.

Chollett has been involved in reunions community service since 2017 when he was put in charge of his class’s community service project for their reunion in 2018.  He immediately decided to ramp up what had typically been small efforts by individual classes. 

He gathered five reunion classes together in 2018, and this year the initiative continues to grow. “We have taken the unique step of creating a partnership of eight major reunion classes to pool our financial and creative and caring resources to do more good for local organizations and get more of our returning classmates and guests involved than we ever have at our reunions,” he said. The multi-class, multi-generational team — classes of 1973, 1978, 1983, 1993, 2003, 2013, 2018 and the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni — has raised a budget of $60,000 to support these projects.

“It’s grown in the most wonderful way,” said Chollett. “It’s wonderful for the young classes and the old classes to be working together.”

Enthusiasm, financial support, and alumni participation continue to grow, as the University has provided extensive logistical support, and all reunion classes have incorporated the community service projects into the reunion registration process. 

“So many people are enthusiastic,” said Chollett. “It’s a nice and wonderful new model of doing community service at reunions, and we will continue to do it into the future.”

Princeton University Reunions 2023 begins on Thursday, May 25, building up to the P-rade marching through campus on Saturday at 2 p.m. and the annual Princeton University Orchestra fireworks concert Saturday night at 8 p.m. in the Princeton Stadium.