By Giavanna Troilo
Kelsey Espada, a senior public relations major, was just 6 years old when she began serving her community in the Bronx, New York.
“I used to go to a soup kitchen every weekend with my family,” said Espada. “I did something called ‘Feed the City,’ – we got a bunch of people to donate trays of food and we’d serve families on Thanksgiving Day every year.”
Despite a childhood full of volunteerism, Espada did not actually know what the Bonner Community Scholars Program was when she signed up for it.
“I had applied, and then I got an email that said ‘you’re going to interview day.’ and I was like, ‘I have to get interviewed?’” Espada recalled.
Espada was soon accepted to the Rider chapter of the Bonner program, a nationwide service organization based in Princeton. She would go on to do over 1,200 hours of on-site and on-campus community service over her four years at Rider.
Each Bonner scholar is placed at a site they visit weekly; Espada, then studying pre-medicine at Rider, was placed at the Homefront Family Campus Family Preservation Center (FPC) in Ewing Township, “a temporary living space for homeless families in Mercer County.”
Since her first semester assisting during evening childcare, Espada was reminded of the impact of her service when she met a child who was nonverbal.
“When [the child] had first come in, he was around 3 years old, and he wasn’t talking at all,” she said. “The staff would say, ‘Kelsey, don’t even try,’ and it motivated me more to try to help him.”
Espada and fellow Bonner, senior elementary education major Jillian Sing, would read to the child everyday, and teach him the alphabet. By the end of the year, the child spoke.
“It was the happiest day,” Espada said. “He started saying anything and everything.”
Espada’s service with Homefront continued through her sophomore and junior years, during which she took up leadership opportunities with Bonner, including becoming the co-site based team leader of the Family Preservation Center (FPC) team.
During her junior year, Liza Peck, support service liaison at FPC, offered Espada an internship at the Homefront office.
“[Espada] has offered incredible support to our evening childcare staff by managing a strong Bonner team while assisting in all aspects of childcare,” Peck said. “She has grown into an empathetic leader as well as a strong team player.”
Espada’s experience as a Bonner ended up changing the course of her Rider journey; she changed her major and became senior Bonner Intern, the lead intern of the program.
Espada plans to continue her nonprofit work by applying for a full-time Volunteer Coordinator position with Homefront after graduation.
But Espada is not the only Bonner whose service changed the outlook of their professional life.
Many Bonner alumni, including Chelsea Jenkins (‘14), Matt Williams (‘13) and Gaby Mendoza (‘18), have pursued work in local nonprofits and educational institutions.
Joan Liptrot, director of the program, spoke of one alumnus, Shariq Marshall (‘18), who decided that he wanted to help others in his career during the annual service trip to West Virginia – required for all first-year Bonners.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘this is what I want to do,’” said Liptrot, emotional in reflection.
Marshall, with the help of Liptrot, went on to work with ArmInArm, a nonprofit organization in Trenton, where he currently holds the position of Operations and Volunteer Coordinator.
“You don’t realize how much you’re learning about yourself when you start out,” said Liptrot. “This program is what the students make of it.”
Liptrot is confident in Espada’s ability to become an “amazing nonprofit professional.”
“I love reality game shows, and there’s always the floaters. But they never win,” said Liptrot. “In the end, it’s the people who jump in with both feet and play hard. That’s life – and Kelsey’s not a floater. She’s always seen the big picture.”
Painted on the wall of the New World Resource Center reads one of the Rider University Community Values: “Real leadership is derived from service to others.”
For Espada, and all of the Bonner Scholars, this could not be more true.
“Service has always been part of my life,” said Espada. “I didn’t realize how much of an impact it actually had on me, and that I would end up wanting to do it for a career. I just want to give back to communities that are similar to the one that I was once in.”
Published in the 2/19/2020 issue of The Rider News.