Transcript: Shirley Fan-Chan, Students Assisting Students (The Art of Volunteering)

The following is a transcription of The Art of Volunteering Episode 17: Shirley Fan-Chan, Students Assisting Students.

Stormy Bell (00:00): Welcome to The Art of Volunteering. I’m your host, Stormy Bell. Today I’m here with a fellow alumnus. We overlapped our years in college while attending Lasell College, now Lasell University. Shirley is the founding member of Students Assisting Students, a 100% volunteer group who packs care bags for college students and needs. So Shirley Fan-Chan, please introduce yourself to our audience.

Shirley Fan-Chan (00:27): Thank you, Stormy [for] having me here today to talk about something that I’m very passionate about and have been doing for over seven years. It is an organization that I founded with a couple of my friends called Students Assisting Students. The origin of this program actually started very organically and is really because of the work that I do. Just to give you a bit of context how I came to this point to create this project for such a long time, I actually had [the] opportunity to work for a high education institution in Massachusetts. University of Massachusetts, Boston. I had the privilege to open an office on campus to serve homeless and foster care students. Through that experience, I met a lot of students who were struggling, who were underserved, who were underprivileged.

I [also] had my own personal experience. I have three sons and one of my sons actually was on his way to college. During that time we were talking about, ‘oh, on your way to college, who can support you? What do you need?’ Being a mom, I always want to make sure my son has everything throughout the school year. This is very typical, right? Every parent who has a child who is on their way to go to college or they have gone into college and the first thing is do they need anything? Do I need to send them anything? Do I need to buy them anything? On campus when I was doing my job many times students would come to my office and ask for supplies as simple as a pen or a writing pad. So that idea actually grew from the job that I was doing during the day when I was at work.

Shirley Fan-Chan (02:16): Students had come to my office for different needs, different reasons and when I went home I said to my son, ‘you’re very lucky that you have a mom who could provide all this stuff to you as simple as the stationary food supplies or snacks’. For students that I work with, they never had those people around them to provide those care packages. That’s how the idea grew. I just grabbed my friends who always volunteer with me and I said ‘hey, I have this idea in mind’, and you know how that works right? When you have friends, you kind of corrupt them into that idea. It’s like, you know what? They really need it. They don’t have family like you and me to support our children. So that’s how we started. We started very small.

Shirley Fan-Chan (03:02): At the beginning the project only provided to the foster care youth who were on their way to post-secondary education, because back then I actually had a couple of foster care students on campus that I was working with. A lot of times, because they were in the state system, they never had any family members supporting them. Because of that I automatically became that trusted adult in their lives. They would come to me for anything that they need or they want to talk about anything. Because of that, the original [purpose] of this project was only to provide care back to the Department of Family and Children’s Services, who have a group of foster care youth who were on their way to applying to colleges and universities. That’s how we started in 2013.

Stormy Bell (03:55): Wow. How many students do you give these packages to now? You started humbly, so where are you at?

Shirley Fan-Chan (04:07): What we do is we provide care packages twice a year for the fall semester and the spring semester. We just finished the spring semester packages a month ago. We did 300 bags. We divided into five campuses. We have contact amongst state university and community colleges in Massachusetts and we would reach out to them every semester, speaking at the beginning of the semester. We ask them if they would like to get some care packages for their students who are struggling food insecurity and housing insecurity. A lot of times the respondent was ‘yeah, absolutely. We would love to have support’ and that’s how we started. Interestingly, I think we all had gone through the past two years with Covid, right? I think for many of us, kind of like being stuck at home and not realizing we actually have so many students out there, we’re not getting any needs and services met.

Last fall, I actually got an email from one of my campus contacts and asked for help because when they reopen the campus after lockdown, they email me and said ‘hey Shirley, I actually want to ask you if you guys have any supplies that you can provide to us, because reopening the campuses, we’re gonna see a lot of needs coming into our office’. Because of that email last fall, I kind of did the things that I knew how to do. [Called] all my friends to action and say ‘hey, this is what happened. We need 300 bags, are you in?’ The response was just so amazing and I was really thankful for all my friends in my community who came forward to support this project.

Stormy Bell (05:51): Very cool. Where do your donations come from? How do you collect all the supplies?

Shirley Fan-Chan (05:57): The donations actually came from the community, word of mouth. Just like you mentioned earlier, our group is a hundred percent volunteer. We don’t do fundraising. We’re not 501(c)(3). We rely on donations from any members who are interested in this project. It’s really based on word of mouth. We spread it out through social media, which is Facebook and Instagram. We have a core group of folks who volunteer in this project and would just spread the word out and we collect donations. Some folks instead of giving us donations, they would write us a check and we will use the cash to go buy the supplies.

Stormy Bell (06:39): Very cool. Now I know you use a lot of students in I guess the packing, but what else do they do and how does that play into like student leadership?

Shirley Fan-Chan (06:53): The student leadership piece actually came up for my son when he was in high school when he found out this is the project that I was doing. He actually initiated a couple of his friends to participate. What they did was they helped us to fundraise. One of his friends was a member of a drama club, and that’s how it all started. When he was doing the drama throughout the school year, once a year at the end of the theater play, they actually made a pledge in front of all the audience and introduced the project that we were doing. People would put money in, literally in the jar, and like $5, $1. That’s how they start fundraising. Because of that experience, I realized that this is such a great opportunity for young people like the high school junior [and] seniors to learn about how fortunate they were in that position, but they also have the power to help other students similar to them that they’re actually moving on to post secondary education.

I thought that idea was so wonderful and I told my friends, ‘how about we continue to recruit young people from high school’ and we all love that idea. Since then we have been nonstop recruiting high school students to participate in this project. They can do different roles. They can help us to do fundraising if they have fundraising ideas. Some of them, like for example, one of my sons who belonged to a karate school and one of the student leaders from the karate class took the initiative to fundraise during the karate classes and fundraise cash for us to go buy supplies. It’s a different idea, different way, depends on the student leader how they want to do it. This year the student leader was helping us to do a lot of supplies coordination, collecting the donations, counting the donations, [and] making sure the donations are all in place when on the packing day. We’re giving them different roles depending on the age of course. Usually for the high school students we delegate more tasks, more responsibilities to them. If they were middle school students who want to come and volunteer, we assign them to come to volunteer the day of the packing, to do the packing.

Stormy Bell (09:15): Okay. About how many volunteers do you have? Your last packing day was, what April 9th? Was that your last packing day? That day, how many students did you have?

Shirley Fan-Chan (09:25): We have about 10 students at least because people come and go. I didn’t even count. We always have a group of adults we call those counters. The adults were the ones that did all the arrangements, all the set up. Once a student arrived, we would show them how to pack the bags and then they would just go just like an assembly line in the factory. They would just go around the table and pick up everything,  put it in a bag, hand it to the adult, and then the adult would count them. We also have a small group of adults and students, they’re writing the cheer card. Now this is something that we believe. Just giving a bag, sometimes the student didn’t know what it was all about. So we decide to give them a cheer card in the bag so they know that actually a group of people somewhere care about them, want to make sure they have their needs, and want to make sure that they know that we are cheering them when they’re doing the school in the post-secondary education. That’s why we also have a group of volunteers sitting at the side table to write the cheer card.

Stormy Bell (10:32): That’s awesome. Have you received any feedback from the students who received the bags? Do you know the impact that it’s made or anything like that?

Shirley Fan-Chan (10:42): Yep. Once in a while we have a thank you card from the student going through the campus office to send it back to us. I think the appreciation definitely was there. One card that really touched my heart was saying that she was glad that someone was thinking of her. That’s something that I think anyone who read that card was so touched because this is exactly what we want to do. To remind them that they are not alone in what they’re doing. We have a group of people, we have a community behind them, cheering for them, and making sure that they will succeed in [their] education.

Stormy Bell (11:19): Nice. Very nice. I don’t really have any more outright questions, but I would love to hear some stories like just volunteering or your origins or the impact. Just tell me some stories that you’ve experienced.

Shirley Fan-Chan (11:36): Sure. A lot of my friends always ask me, ‘well, why are you doing what you’re doing? Because you’re constantly finding projects to volunteer’. I think this is something that we all agree with our society, with our community. We will always need someone to give back. We’ll always need someone to make sure the unfortunate, the underserved, the underprivileged folks will get [the] support that they need because we are very fortunate to have the support that we need. I’m constantly looking for different projects, ideas. The care bags project is one of my many other volunteer projects that I’m working on. I think this is something that my friends sometime ask me, how could they do the same thing? I think this is kind of the word of advice that I always give to my friend is find your passion.

Find what you believed in because what you believed in what your values is, is gonna guide what you want to volunteer for your community. Right. I have this philosophy because my profession is, I work for nonprofits for many years since I graduated from college. That’s my calling, right? Helping others, giving back. I think one thing that we need to know is anytime when you turn around, when you see someone in need, you may think that, well, I’m only one person. I can only do so much. Actually it’s not. You’re doing a community work. By being one person, you can ask around, ask your friends, ask your family. You create a community of support for those underprivileged, underserved. I think that’s kind of my philosophy. Whatever volunteer project that I am working on, I always have a group of volunteers that we all get together, we all share the same beliefs, same values, and we all believe that giving back, helping others is what we are here for. I think this is what we talked about, it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to make sure that our community is being well served. I think that’s kind of the things that I use as my guiding principle.

Stormy Bell (13:49): That’s awesome. Very cool. I think people don’t realize how much they can make an impact just for a simple gesture. It doesn’t have to be changing, you know, like, how am I gonna change the world? It’s like, no, just help the person, your neighbor. Exactly. Just go across the street and say, can I help you? You know, something simple. What it does is tenfold hundredfold of what you’re giving.

Shirley Fan-Chan (14:18): Exactly. You made a good point, Stormy. Like for example someone says, well my neighbor needs help because they’re aging, you’re helping one neighbor. Then you start to think about, oh, if I have one neighbor who needs help, maybe another aging neighbor in the neighborhood or down the street also needs help. How can I make sure this is happening in our community? Once you spread the word out, other people will just take it on. I think the idea is you start something then other people can scale to replicate that kind of work and the volunteer work.

Stormy Bell (14:56): Now I’m gonna ask you a blooper. Something that you did that didn’t turn out right or something you saw your leaders or your students do that didn’t turn out right, but they learned something from it.

Shirley Fan-Chan (15:13): It’s just so many [instances] that I can think about. It’s not about doing right. When you try to plan a project like this volume, I think we really learn on the go. Every year we have to be very organized and the first few years we didn’t have that kind of a learning experience. This is how we understand counting is so important. Why we actually assign adults as a counter is because for the beginning when we first asked the project, we didn’t realize that counting actually was so critical for us to make sure we have enough bags. We also need to divide the bags to each campus because we have six campuses that we need to deliver to and each campus should have the right number.

We didn’t do it very well back then. That’s the reason we now, learning what we learned from the beginning, we assign adults to be the counter. That makes such a big difference for the past few years from our packing experience, having two adults just responsible to count. [Another] adult would be doing quality control or troubleshooting, making sure the students have any questions. We found out that having an adult counter would just make our life so much easier in the whole project. That’s really what we learned during that time [that] I can think of.

Stormy Bell (16:47): Awesome. I totally appreciate that. Alright. We’re to the time in the show where I asked you to love on Students Assisting Students. Just love on it. Share why people should donate, why the student should get involved. Just love on it.

Shirley Fan-Chan (17:05): Why people want to donate. Think about a group of students who are out there on their own without parents, without families supporting them. We are the parents. When I say we are the parents, because we are the parents of this whole community, we’re the parents of the society. We’re we’re parents of every child in the community. If they are needing our support, why not? I think that’s how I ask other folks, especially a lot of my community volunteers they’re parents themselves and they can relate to it. Why [should] students want to get involved? Because it’s a great opportunity to open their eyes to understand what is the unfortunate, what is the underserved populations? What would they need? A lot of time our student didn’t understand. Well we talk about food insecurity, which means they don’t have meal on the table, not necessarily. They may not just have enough food to eat.

They have food, but they don’t have enough food to eat. That’s the difference, right? I think students using those opportunities to understand what are different issues, what are different populations the needs are and for them actually, I feel like we’re creating the social responsibility among the younger generations. I think for the students to get involved is really great for them to understand we’re responsible for our community, we’re responsible for our society. I think that’s one thing that I always engage students to say, learn about the world. This is the first step.

Stormy Bell (18:39): Absolutely.

Shirley Fan-Chan (18:40): Also the peer support peers is really important.

Stormy Bell (18:43): Yes. That opens their eyes and having that hands-on and getting to know someone at that age, it makes an impact for the rest of their lives. Volunteering, reaching out, or mentoring becomes a core value that stays with them from the time they’re 16 to the time they’re 96. It can exactly just become a guiding principle in their lives. That’s awesome. Now if my listeners wanna get to know more about Students Assisting Students, where would they go? How would they find you?

Shirley Fan-Chan (19:16): We have a website: We are based in Massachusetts and if anyone who is outside of Massachusetts wants to donate, we [are] in the process of creating a signup link on the website, so you can sign up by ordering whatever [is] on the list and ship it to the locations that we designated. We usually do donation drives twice a year, the beginning of the fall semester and the beginning of the spring semester.

Stormy Bell (19:50): Awesome. Very cool. Well, Shirley thank you for being on The Art of Volunteering. I really appreciated this conversation. I think it’s eye-opening for a lot of people because you just don’t think of college students as having food insecurity and it’s so much more prevalent than people realize. I want to thank you and I ask my listeners to join in next time. Till then, just look to impact your neighbor. Just find a way to go across the street and do something kind. You don’t know how much that will mean. Well, thank you and have a great day.

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