On one sunny Saturday morning, two professors and a group of freshmen from St. John’s University gathered at Saratoga Family Residence, armed with brushes, rollers, and buckets of brightly colored paints.
They were there to complete a mural project they’d begun work on several weeks earlier in the facility’s parking lot. The mural was starting to take shape with a coat of bright yellow paint, outlines of a heart, ribbons reading the words love and happiness, and outstretched hands flanking the walls’ edges.
The two professors, Heather Dunn and Anthony Michaelides, developed the project for their Discover New York course, a required class for freshmen at St. John’s University, in which students explore New York City through various thematic lenses.
“You’re learning something about New York City in Discover New York, but you’re learning it with whatever expertise that professor has in New York City,” said Michaelides. “We just happen to be focusing our class in Discover New York on the arts.”
The course also incorporates a volunteer component, requiring six hours of volunteer service per semester. For Dunn and Michaelides, Saratoga was the perfect partner for their students’ volunteer project, with Saratoga staff embracing their idea for a mural with characteristic warmth and enthusiasm.
The students likewise embraced the project, finding plenty of fun and fulfillment over the course of their painting sessions. Two student volunteers took a break from painting to chat about their experience volunteering.
“It’s actually really nice and I like helping people,” said Diamone Colbert, a freshman from Maryland enrolled in the Discover New York course. “It feels good because it’s a natural thing to do and at the end of the day it’s fun—it’s actually fun doing it. You get great experiences.”
“Yeah, volunteering makes you feel really good,” agreed Alexis Morgan Daniels, another student volunteer from the Bronx.
Daniels added that despite being from New York City, her participation in the project allowed her to see an area of the city she’d never have thought to visit, and to engage with an issue—family homelessness—that she hasn’t been very exposed to before.
“I like volunteering because sometimes you can be just unaware of things,” explained Daniels. “You’re concerned with your own daily problems, but when you volunteer, it’s a reminder that you need to focus on the bigger things. It’s good to help out.”
By the end of the day, the group had painted in the banners’ lettering and added pinks, greens, violets, yellows to the oversized outstretched handprints and a number of smaller hearts. Children from Saratoga’s recreation programming stopped by to lend a handprint to the interior of the mural’s heart.
The completed mural offers a splash of color in a space frequently repurposed for Saratoga’s regular family events, intended to foster community, engagement, and bonding amongst residents and staff.
Saratoga’s family events are special to behold. In the past six months alone, families have come together for everything from a safety talk with NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill and FDNY Queens Bureau Commander Ed Baggott, to a kid-powered fashion show organized by employees from Old Navy.
During the warmer months, family events are often held outside, in Saratoga’s parking lot, which offers ample space for bouncy houses, informational booths, and basketball courts, but until recently, was surrounded by blank walls.
Not anymore—the student volunteers have already painted the rest of the parking lot’s walls the same bright yellow, with plans to extend the mural around the entire perimeter.
“I think not only the students, but we have found it really rewarding to make a difference in something that we personally do and love anyway,” said Dunn of contributing her and Michaelides’ skills and creativity towards the mural project.
“It’s pretty special to be a part of something like this,” added Michaelides. “To know that we’re making a difference, I think, is the most important part.”
In addition to the mural project, Dunn and Michaelides also asked students to contribute to a campus food drive to benefit HFH family residences. Both noted that they’re excited to continue working with HFH in subsequent phases to the project and have already begun developing designs for students enrolled in their Discover New York for the upcoming fall semester.
“We collaborated to create what we hope to be a long-term partnership with Homes for the Homeless because there’s a lot of potential here,” said Michaelides. “A lot of walls.”