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One Day in Thrive

DATE: Friday, April 10, 2020

A look inside the program that supports HCC's most vulnerable students

Food Pantry in Thrive

Editor's Note: This story appears in the Spring 2020 issue of HCC's Alumni Connection magazine.


"I actually can't recall off the top of my head. A lot of places. It's just, everything's scattered. We kind of went everywhere - shelters, hotels. I feel like if I could get a place of my own I will have that foundation of finally being stable so I can focus on other things, instead of worrying about what I'm going to eat or how I'm going to get to school or where I am going to stay. When you're homeless, those things are constantly running through your head."

- An 18-year-old Holyoke Community College student, November 2019 

Rosemary Fiedler '12 unlocks the door to the Thrive Student Resource Center every weekday morning before the posted opening time of 8:30 a.m. If she has learned anything during 3½ three years as the program coordinator, it's that she cannot be late and it's better to be early. Too many students' lives depend on her and this place, and missed connections are sometimes gone for good.  

Inevitably, whenever she arrives, students are already there, lurking nearby or seated in a makeshift waiting area in the hallway.

"You should have been here yesterday," she tells me. "It was nuts." 

The day before, a representative from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts was in the office, helping students fill out applications for SNAP food assistance benefits. Fiedler scrambled to accommodate two new mothers who needed private space to use their breast pumps. She arranged a meeting between a homeless student and an intake coordinator for an emergency housing program. And all that was on top of a routinely packed schedule of meetings with distressed students dealing with a wide range of non-academic challenges, mainly housing, healthcare, and hunger.   

Today, though, two weeks before Thanksgiving, Fiedler's calendar is for the most part clear, but that doesn't mean it will be any less hectic. On "Walk-In Wednesdays," students don't need appointments.   

"Anything can come through that door," she says. 

'You're always welcome here' 

At 8:20 a.m, she opens up. Two students follow her straight in. Thrive operates the HCC Food Pantry and also provides free snacks for students from its signature "Grab-n-Go" cart, such as single-serving cereal boxes, fruit cups, instant oatmeal, granola bars, nuts, noodle bowls, crackers, cookies, and chips. Andre Desjardins, a 40-year-old, first-semester student from Chicopee, pokes around the Grab-n-Go cart and selects a package of chocolate chip cookies and bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.  

To ensure Thrive's resources have the greatest reach, students are limited to accessing the Food Pantry once a month for a bag of groceries and twice a week for Grab-n-Go. They're required to show their HCC IDs, but Thrive operates to some extent on an honor system that most students seem to respect. Desjardins says he'd come more often if he could. 

"It's not easy," he says. "I live on a fixed income, and I have to try to make what I get last a month."  

Thrive occupies a former classroom on the second floor of the Frost Building divided now by cubicle partitions. A small reception area houses a desk, visitors chairs, fax/copy machine, water cooler, microwave, coffee maker, dorm-sized refrigerator, and the Grab-n-Go cart.   The Food Pantry is in the back next to an office used by Thrive's part-time program assistant and representatives from visiting agencies who help students apply for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program), open bank accounts, enroll in affordable healthcare plans and find emergency housing. Fiedler's office is separated from reception by a partition and a plastic shower curtain that functions as a door.  

She drops her coat in her office and takes a seat behind the reception desk. Student Marcus Collazo starts explaining the problems he has been having with his health insurance. He uses MassHealth, a state-funded plan for low-income residents, he tells her, so he doesn't need the college's health insurance, Blue Cross Blue Shield. (Students taking nine course credits or more are required to buy the college's health insurance if they don't have their own plan.) Despite attempting to opt out through a waiver process, he appears to have been enrolled anyway. Now he's worried he might lose access to critical prescription medication he needs or to his longtime therapist or that he might be charged with co-pays he can't afford.  "The waiver process is incredibly complicated," says Fiedler.

They spend nearly a half hour together. Fiedler scribbles a few questions on a Post-It for Collazo to research before a Friday appointment she has scheduled for him with Tony Sbalbi, HCC's dean of students, who has authority to intercede over matters related to the college health plan.  

 "I want you to do your homework and then I want you to come back," Fielder says. "You're always welcome here. We've got tea, coffee. We've got Grab-n-Go, so if you need to run in and run out, we've got food." 

"I'm actually going to take some," says Collazo, a 19-year-old biology major from Holyoke. "I haven't been able to eat breakfast today." 

Collazo has a part-time job at Chipotle. Still, he says, he often skips meals.  

"Me and my mother are living paycheck to paycheck, so it's either I make something at home or I don't eat at all," he says. "Sometimes I just don't have time. I don't have a car. I take the bus so I need to be there at a certain time or else I'm not going to make it to class." 

'We're all helping each other' 

Fiedler studied psychology at HCC, then went on to Elms College for her bachelor's degree and Springfield College for her master's in psychology and counseling. As an older HCC student - she was 45 when she started - she worked here as a tutor and never left.  

Before taking over in Thrive, she was a learning coach for an HCC program called STRIVE that supports low-income, disabled and first-generation college students, and then a career counselor and academic adviser in Transition to College and Careers, a free, pre-college program whose classes she still visits.  

"HCC changed my life," she says. "It changed my world. It changed my children's world."

Her daughter Shayla is a student in HCC's Veterinary Technician program.  

Despite her previous HCC experience, Fiedler learned through Thrive that students are generally more self-conscious about being hungry than being homeless.  

"That's not how I thought it would go," she says. "But if you think about it, there are so many outside variables that affect whether someone is homeless or housing insecure. The onus isn't necessarily on them for being in that position. But for food, they think it's somehow their own fault, which is why we've made such an effort to normalize access, so they will come in."  

Doughnuts help. Nearly every morning this semester, an anonymous member of the HCC community has been dropping off boxes of fresh doughnuts and muffins.    

"It's nice to have for students, to destigmatize and normalize the Grab-n-Go, so it's not just, oh my god, you're in crisis, go get a granola bar. It's, come to Thrive for coffee and a doughnut," says Fiedler. "It makes them feel valued, that it's a normal thing to come and access services here. Normalizing food access reduces the stigma. Because of that, we make these connections and build relationships, and that's the key. Cause we don't know they're in crisis unless they come in."  

Like Collazo, Chris Coburn first visited Thrive for help with health insurance. Since then, the 21-year-old biology major from Springfield has been a frequent presence. He's used the Food Pantry at times and stops in regularly for Grab-n-Go, and now he also works here 10 hours a week, one of several work-study students here who all got to know Fielder after coming in for services.    

Coburn's chief responsibility is organizing the Food Pantry, weighing and recording donations, restocking shelves, and marking expiration dates. Though his shift today doesn't start until 10:15, he dropped by before his 9 o'clock class just to check in and say hello.  

"Rosemary is always so nice and so kind," he says. "Working in Thrive it almost feels like a family. We're all supporting each other. We're all helping each other." 

'Kind of wobbly'

 Two female students stop in.   

 "Who are the doughnuts for?" says one of them, Rachael Jablonski, a 21-year-old human services major from Westfield. It's her first time here. 

"Just Grab-n-Go," says Fiedler. "Would you like one?" 

"I haven't had breakfast yet," says Jablonski, "so this is good for me." 

"Well, you can always grab something more nutritious." 

Fiedler often uses these casual interactions to raise other subjects, and this conversation drifts seamlessly from food to credit counseling, another Thrive service and one she mentions frequently. The young ladies sit down, and Fiedler gives them a brief tutorial on credit, explaining what a credit score is, how it's calculated, and why it's important.   

"Do you need a good credit score to get an apartment?" Jablonski asks.  

Fielder's face lights up.

"Yes, you do," she says. "I'll teach you more if you want to come back. I'll teach you the rules of credit. It's a game, and it has rules. Let me teach you, so when you are in a position to get credit, you'll use it correctly, and you'll win." 

A male student named Josh grabs a doughnut and quickly departs. Four young women visit the Grab-n-Go cart, taking cups of ramen noodles, packets of instant oatmeal, and a few bags of chips. 

"Hi, Rosemary," says a male student peeking in from the hallway. "Are those doughnuts for anyone?" 

Work-study student Bianca Thomas arrives in time to relieve Fiedler from the sudden burst of action at the reception desk. Thomas checks student IDs, makes photocopies for the Thrive files and sits down to log into the office computer.   

She reads an urgent email message from a homeless student asking for help. The student says she's been sick, and it had been a cold night. She left no phone number. Thomas sends an immediate reply: Are you in a safe, warm place? 

"Every shift, someone mentions some sort of housing need," says Thomas. "Unsafe. Unstable. Slumlord."   

While they try to make a quick connection, it doesn't always work out.  "When they're in crisis like that, you have to reach them in that moment or you may lose them," Fiedler says.  

Three years ago, Thomas was herself living in a shelter for women battling domestic violence. At the time, she was a student in HCC's Transition to College and Careers program. Fiedler visited her class one day to talk about Thrive.  

"Rose helped me get out and get my own apartment, but to do that I needed to get my credit score up," Thomas says. "I was under the 600 mark, so I wasn't able to get into apartments."

Now she's in the "700 club," she says. "It took me three years to get there, all uphill, but it was worth it." 

The 35-year-old Springfield resident, sustainability studies major and mother of two, who also works part time as a home health aide, is now looking to buy a house.   

"Getting my credit in order was the key to everything," she says. "Without that I didn't really have stable housing. Once you get that foundation, you can build off of it. Without it, you're kind of wobbly."

 'I hope so' 

Food donations show up frequently in Thrive, and this morning another anonymous donor left an assortment of red and white holiday gift bags, each pre-portioned with a pouch of tuna, fruit and granola bar, can of sparkling water, sleeve of peanuts, cheese and crackers, cup of ramen noodles, and package of instant oatmeal. Thomas places a few of the bags next to the Grab-n-Go cart.  

Paul St. George, a 36-year-old business major from Northampton, swings in on break from math class. "I forgot my ID," he says. "Can I bring it down when I come back?" 

"You can just write down your name and ID number," says Thomas. "We have some doughnuts, and we have some to-go bags." 

St. George makes himself a cup of coffee, takes a granola bar from the Grab-n-Go cart and a holiday to-go bag. He says he comes in about once a week for snacks and once a month for the Food Pantry. "It's very convenient and very helpful," he says. 

Thomas sorts the photocopied student IDs into two folders, one for the Food Pantry and one for Grab-n-Go.  

"Grab-n-Go gets used four times as much as the Food Pantry," says Fiedler. "Our students are hungry now. They're not thinking of dinner. They're thinking of now." 

If they see the same students coming in repeatedly, they try to follow up: Hey, do you have SNAP? Maybe you qualify and we can get that for you.  

"People might only know us for Grab-n-Go and then, coming in here, they find out we help out with other stuff too," says Thomas.  

"Today, it's a granola bar," Fiedler often says. "Tomorrow it's food stamps." 

Thrive was founded in 2015 as a "one-stop financial success center," a tagline that still appears on some Thrive signs, although the name has changed along with its focus. It is now officially the Thrive Student Resource Center, or, simply, the Thrive Center.    

Originally, Thrive pushed financial literacy skills - checking and savings accounts, tax preparation, budgeting workshops - not food.  

"We tried running money skills classes at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and nobody would show up," says Fiedler. "It's really tough to get people excited about managing money when they're busy working two jobs and picking up kids. How many homeless students do you think gave a hoot about their credit scores?" 

Fiedler still talks up the importance of establishing good credit and wise money management, but Thrive now puts more of an emphasis on basic needs. In keeping with that mission, the college moved the HCC Food Pantry into Thrive about a year ago.    

"It's Maslow's hierarchy of needs, right?" she says. "We need to stabilize them with housing, food and healthcare first before we can start to engage them on issues like their credit and budgeting." 

Later, across the hall, Fiedler sits down in a small office with Jean Rogers, a social worker from a transitional housing program called CHD Safety Zone, and Faith, an 18-year-old homeless student in her first semester at HCC.   

A 2019 graduate of Springfield's Central High School, Faith learned about Thrive on New Student Orientation Day before starting classes in September.   

"They've helped me out a lot," she says, "cause most of the time I don't have money for food, so I come here for Grab-n-Go. I try not to come more than two times a week because I know other people have to eat too." 

Homeless most of her life, Faith's unstable living situation is now putting her college career in jeopardy just as it's begun. In the past year, she's lived off and on with her aunt. Not long before turning 18, she was briefly in foster care. Now she's living with her mother, in the home of a family friend. She started the semester with five classes and has already dropped three. 

"If we can help her maintain housing," Fiedler tells Rogers, "then she can focus on being a student." 

"I'm sure they'll be something for you," Fiedler says.  

"I hope so," says Faith. 

 'This is gonna help me write my paper' 

Solney Santiago, a 28-year-old Foundations of Health major from Springfield, comes in after she was told Thrive provides free fax services, and she needs to send some documents to MassHealth. Thomas helps her but senses there's more. 

"You look stressed," Thomas says.  

She is. A few days ago, the state Dept. of Children and Families suddenly placed Solney's two young nephews in her custody. She's trying to add them to her health insurance plan. Plus, she and her husband have a 4-year-old daughter of their own.  "We're here for you, to help you," says Thomas.

Solney comes back later in the day and leaves with two bags of groceries from the Food Pantry, an emergency appointment to meet with a SNAP benefits coordinator, a referral to the Easthampton Community Center, which provides free backpacks and school supplies to low-income families, and doughnuts for the children.  

"It really helps," she says. Not long before closing time - 4:30 p.m. - Nathan Wytrwal comes in for a cup of coffee. It's his second time here today. Earlier, he'd been in looking for a snack.  

"I had heard they had free doughnuts," he says. "Then I was offered a grab bag full of goodies that had some healthier options."  

An engineering major and honors student in his final semester, the 35-year-old Holyoke resident enrolled at HCC as part of a re-education grant offered through unemployment, and he first came to Thrive for help building his credit. Now his score is up to 776, a rating of "excellent."  

"I'll take that," he says. "I love the services here. Mostly I come for Grab-n-Go. It helps me get through the day, like when I need a coffee and can't afford one." 

The last Walk-in-Wednesday visitor of the day is Avery Maltz, a 32-year-old biology major from Northampton. He's also been in twice today, both times to heat up a supermarket burrito he brought in.  

"I get hungry," he says. "I come and use the microwave or sometimes I'll use the Food Pantry or the Grab-n-Go or even walking by I'll say hi." 

"Would you like a doughnut?" says Fiedler. "I need to feed you." Maltz thinks for a moment and takes a muffin instead.  

"I'm gonna be sad later," he says, "but this is gonna help me write my paper." 

'A better semester' 

According to a January 2020 basic needs survey conducted by the Hope Center at Temple University, 46 percent of HCC students who responded had experienced "food insecurity" in the previous 30 days, that is, they were worried about how much food they could afford, leading many to ration their consumption, either by skimping or skipping meals entirely if not going a day or more at times without eating.   

More than half, 56 percent, faced "housing insecurity," meaning their living situations were unstable or in some way threatened; 23 percent identified as outright homeless; and 67 percent had experienced either food insecurity, housing insecurity, or homelessness. HCC's numbers are slightly higher than those for community colleges nationwide.  

By my count, on Nov. 13, 2019, one day in the life of Thrive, 40 HCC students visited the center for one or more services, and here's why: Grab-n-Go (30); credit counseling (5); health insurance (5); Food Pantry (2); SNAP benefits (2); housing (2); other (8), microwave, clothing, coffee, backpacks, school supplies, just checking in.

I interviewed about half of them for this story, and it's a credit to Fiedler's mission to destigmatize Thrive's services that only two students asked that their names not be used.  

One was the anonymous doughnut donor, who I caught up with early one morning when he came to Thrive with a delivery. I recognized him right away as a student who had come in for Grab-n-Go the day I was there.   

"I'm just trying to help them out," he said. "I try to help them because they help me." 

Unfortunately, the doughnut deliveries eventually stopped. Fiedler told me this student did not return for the spring 2020 semester. She doesn't know why, and so it goes.  

Someone who did return, though, is Faith, the 18-year-old woman whose quote opens this story and the second person who asked not to be named. 

On Jan. 19, Faith moved into a dormitory on the campus of Westfield State University after being accepted into a new program for homeless community college students set up through the Dept. of Higher Education. She was recommended by Fiedler and Tony Sbalbi.  As part of this program, she shares a room with another previously homeless HCC student. They get complementary meal plans at Westfield and free public transportation to HCC. They can use all the facilities there, including the library and gym, and, for the first time, they have consistent, reliable Internet access where they live.   

"I'm trying to make everything run smoothly," Faith said after a few weeks of classes. "I feel like my mental state is clearer. I'm getting all my work in and keeping everything organized, so I think this is going to be a better semester." 

Her spirits up, Faith changed her mind about letting me use her name. It's Faith Ballard. She also allowed me to take her photograph. In it, she's standing by the Thrive office door, and she's smiling.

PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Above) The staff of the Thrive Student Resource Center. (Thumbnail) Work-study student Chris Coburn marks the expiration dates on items in the HCC food pantry.