Class of '80 Alums Reunite with Community Service in West Philadelphia

Many University of Pennsylvania alumni give back, but some do so not just to the school that put them on the path to their future. The Class of 1980 stands out for partnering with West Philadelphia, which Penn calls home, and the ’80 alums hope  other classes will do the same.

Class of 1980 alumnus Leonard Bernstein leads a group of his fellow graduates in service projects at Sayre High School. From painting the walls to mentoring to organizing field trips, these alums give their time and energy to students at Sayre.

Bernstein said this service idea goes back to 2005 when his class members did a community-service project in a local high school garden during their 25th reunion. Five years later, when he got involved in planning his 30th class reunion, he attended a planning conference where he heard Ira Harkavy, director of Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, speak. 

“I was wowed by the Netter Center presentation,” Bernstein says. “I said to some of my classmates, ‘Wouldn't it be nice to have a reason for being other than planning a party every five years?’ ”

Fellow 1980 alum Jayne Perilstein gives Bernstein the credit for their class’s involvement with Sayre – “this was Len’s brainchild” – but she credits subsequent events for its continuation. 

“We had a really successful 30th reunion,” she explains.  “We did really well with attendance, with classmates coming out of the woodwork, and we knew one of our goals was to keep the class together.  So we had this enthusiasm, alumni interested in endeavors, not just in a reunion, but also in reaching out to others who wanted to make a connection.

“It all lined up that a service project was perfect,” Perilstein says. “A large number of our classmates are in the Philadelphia area, so we wanted a project to engage our local classmates.  Len made the connection with the Netter Center.”

“I called Ira, and we met with his staff,” Bernstein says. “They were completely taken aback at our proposal. The Netter Center has partnered with classes before in reunion years, but here we were, unsolicited, wanting to organize an ongoing relationship.

“The Netter Center gave us the meaning we were looking for,” Bernstein says. “The group liked the idea. They were also familiar with the Center’s work.”

“The Class of ’80,” says Cory Bowman, Netter Center assistant director, “represents the first involvement of alumni in community outreach that is based on a sustained relationship, not just a particular activity. While Penn and other schools have students, faculty and staff engaged in community partnerships, this is a new type of relationship.  Sustained alumni class partnerships represent a whole new dimension in Penn’s civic engagement.   It’s an exciting way to tap into Penn’s human and intellectual resources.”

In a series of meetings, the class members learned more about the Netter Center’s University-Assisted Community Schools program and its needs –- and about themselves.

“Most of us didn’t know each other at Penn and were not the people who sign on for reunions,” Bernstein says.

“In the meetings, we asked the Netter Center staff to tell us what would work, match us with a project,” Bernstein says. “They said, ‘Help us with Sayre High School.’ ”

All of Sayre’s students are considered at-risk, but Sayre also has a robust Penn involvement, with several Penn staff and programs onsite, he explains.

“They set the expectations for us in a realistic way,” Perilstein adds. “There was a lot of change in the school environment, and the Netter Center staff said just showing up and being consistent was most important. The worst that you can do is make promises and then fizzle out. You’re talking a long-term commitment.”

“By adopting Sayre, the class had multiple points for involvement: MLK day of service, career days, mentoring programs,” Bowman says.

Their first project was Martin Luther King day in 2011, helping to paint Sayre’s gymnasium.

“It took till January 2011 to really get going,” Perilstein says. “We met the kids and got a tremendous response from the class.”

Then they recruited ninth graders and 1980 alumni for the mentoring program. They planned field trips to the Barnes Foundation, City Hall, Penn and West Philadelphia’s Enterprise Center and Curio Theatre. Several classmates went to the high school’s career day.

“We had other elements in planning, but it became challenging getting classmates to participate and because of staffing changes at the school,” she adds. “There were lots of starts and stops.”

So the class streamlined the program in 2012 to focus on mentoring with Sayre seniors.  The mentors brought in medical and financial-literacy experts for group sessions on career options, programs to get them to think about doing something when they graduate. They also held a big end-of-year trip.

And they involved the Sayre students in a community-service project making blankets for senior-citizen groups and brought them to Penn’s campus and gave them Class of ‘80 T-shirts.

The high school now has a new principal and a new onsite coordinator for Netter Center programs, with the Class of ’80 still involved and their numbers slowly growing.

“What we could really use now is more communication with our classmates,” Bernstein says.

The latest class newsletter lists upcoming field trips and outlines how classmates can become involved.

“Ultimately, we want to make this a model for other non-reunion-year classes to take on,” Bernstein says. “We have talked to the classes around ours; the point is to encourage other classes to take this initiative on.”

“The Class of 1980 is leading the way for alumni engagement through community service,” says Lisbeth Willis, director of classes and reunions in the Penn Alumni Relations office. “The class leadership has created a wonderful best practice for not only helping forming partnerships with the community but also keeping the class involved during their non-reunion years. Other classes are interested in potentially replicating these efforts.”

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