Service clubs a force for good in the community

For the past fifty years, Exeter Student Service Organization (ESSO) has helped Exonians translate non sibi from theory into practice.

Melanie Nelson
August 3, 2017
Jessica Zhao talking with a child.

Jessica Zhao '17, former co-head of the Chinese Culture Cub, interacts with a young friend.

The detritus of busy Exeter students forms the stage setting, as it were, of the second-floor Academy Center offices of Director of Service Learning Liz Reyes and Exeter Student Service Organization Program Assistant Maureen Costello.

Vibrantly colored hula hoops are propped beside giant unopened jugs of lemonade. On a center table lie photos of Exonians sporting green ESSO T-shirts as they celebrate the acquisition of their “dragon,” Academy vernacular for the short red buses that transport students to off-campus activities.

It is a warm and festive space where service-minded students come to hash over ideas, seek advice, and sometimes, say Reyes and Costello, receive a little prodding. 

ESSO Field Day fun with Exeter area children

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of ESSO, an umbrella organization that now encompasses some 71 student-run clubs and organizations focusing on everything from food insecurity among Seacoast New Hampshire residents, to teaching chess to local school children, to fundraising to find a cure for cancer.

With broad and significant student participation — last year at least 650 Exonians were involved with ESSO programs — and a network of 45 community partners, ESSO has grown from humble beginnings into a robust and far-reaching force for good.

To get a sense of ESSO’s impact on local residents and on the Exonians who are involved with it, the Bulletin talked with a range of individuals, including program participants, program managers, club founders and student board members. What follows are snapshots of how ESSO has touched their lives, and of how the organization pushes our students to realize, in very concrete ways, the school’s historic mission.

Instilling a love of learning

When Lisa Warne and her husband and three daughters moved to Stratham, New Hampshire from Shelburne, Vermont, five years ago, it was to be closer to a large city (Boston) and, she adds, for the good schools. “We’ve always been academically minded,” says Warne, whose daughters entered the second, third and fifth grades, respectively, upon the family’s arrival. Shortly thereafter, two Academy students visited Stratham Memorial School, which houses grades three through five, to speak about PEA and its impact on their lives. That evening, Warne says, her third-grader, Rachel, came home and announced she was going to Phillips Exeter.

Hannah Warne with ESSO tutor Meghana Chalasani '17

“Rachel’s zeal inspired us to check out the offerings at Exeter,” Warne explains. With 36 student-run programs that are free and open to children in the greater Exeter community, ESSO instantly appealed to the family. Warne initially enrolled her daughters in ESSO sports lessons (basketball, skating, tennis, Frisbee), later adding in a few academically focused clubs (art, robotics, computer coding) and music lessons. Noting the positive influence of these activities on Rachel, older daughter Hannah and younger daughter Kate, Warne and her husband eventually decided to register all three girls for ESSO tutoring. Their timing was perfect — for the past three years, each daughter has had the same PEA student tutor. “It’s considered math tutoring,” Warne says, “but Katie [Lee ’18], Maria [Lee ’18] and Meghana [Chalasani ’17] also talk about science and philosophy with the girls. These programs have had a tremendous impact on our family.”

These tutors want to be with our girls. ... They are exemplary role models."
Lisa Warne, whose three daughters were inspired by their ESSO tutors

While ESSO tutoring has undoubtedly sharpened the Warne sisters’ aptitude with figures, their mother says it has done much, much more. “These tutors want to be with our girls,” she emphasizes, “and beyond passing along knowledge, they are exemplary role models. They make our daughters feel like there is a buzz happening here on campus, like learning doesn’t have to be a chore. Thanks to the encouragement of Katie, Maria and Meghana, our girls know their dreams and goals are achievable. At Exeter, they’ve learned that learning is awesome.”

Connecting across generations

Sitting in the sweetly decorated common room of Exeter’s 277 Water Street, a senior housing complex situated along the town’s bucolic Swasey Parkway, are Mary Dupré, a native of nearby Newmarket, New Hampshire, and Doris Murphy, who was born and raised in Exeter. Murphy, age 80, is a retired Rite Aid cashier who raised her five children mostly on her own. She is plainspoken in the way of someone who has grown to understand, and expect, life’s ups and downs — frank, but not cynical. Dupré, 88, reared seven children before returning to college to study English and anthropology, and worked as an archaeologist until her retirement. Thoughtful and soft-spoken, she is the longtime writer and distributor of Water Street’s monthly newsletter.

Mary Dupré (left) with Doris Murphy at 277 Water Street

Murphy is gesturing to various rectangular tables spread around the room. “This table is usually used for Scrabble,” she notes, pointing to the one at which she is seated. “That one over there is used for dominoes.” Murphy motions to a third table by the big picture windows that look out over the town’s tidal river. “Most of the time the card players are over there.” She pauses for a moment, before adding, “The card players tend to get carried away.” Her friend Dupré concurs, but then remarks, “Some weeks it seems like the dominoes group is the noisiest.”

Games With Seniors

ESSO games with seniors

Exonians and seniors talk about the weekly games at Water Street.

The women are referring to an ESSO program called Games with Seniors, which each Sunday afternoon unites Exonians with residents of Water Street to play games together. “It’s really fun,” Murphy enthuses. While Games with Seniors, founded in 2015, is a relatively young program by ESSO standards, Dupré and Murphy have resided at Water Street long enough, 11 and 16 years, respectively, to have participated in other ESSO activities, including a computer assistance program, Adopt-a-Grandparent, and, in Dupré’s case, Latin lessons.

Murphy, who loves how “cheerful, helpful and polite” the Exeter students are and clearly looks forward to their weekly visits, is certain that the fondness is reciprocal. “I think one of the reasons they enjoy coming to spend time with us is because we are the age their grandparents would be; I think they are sometimes missing their grandparents,” she explains. For her part, Dupré relishes how quickly students who are new to the program begin to express their affection. “It is interesting to see the kids come in in the fall. There are usually a few repeats, and the repeat students already know us, so they greet us with a hug. The new students see that, and before you know it, they are hugging us, too.”

The new students ... before you know it, are hugging us, too."
Mary Dupré

Offering classroom help and new cultural perspectives

Steve Adler’s towering presence belies a calm, almost yogi-like personality. One can only imagine that such sereneness serves him well as the principal of Exeter’s Main Street School, home to 460 students in grades K-2. A 30-year veteran of New England public schools, Adler has served as principal of Main Street for the past nine years, during which he has also come to know numerous ESSO volunteers. “We have a long history of Academy students coming here to help in a variety of ways,” he explains. “For us, that is just lovely.”

Our teachers love having them as volunteers."
Principal Steve Adler of the Main Street School in Exeter

Beyond occasional performances by PEA’s choir and Theater and Dance Department, or one-off projects such as painting hopscotch and four-square patterns on the school’s blacktop, several Exonians, Adler says, are in Main Street on a regular basis. “Many work with our second-graders,” he says. “They help edit the children’s writing, do computer activities with them, assist with research, partner read and even make papier-mâché dinosaurs. Sometimes they help the teachers run lessons; other times they simply sit with students during snack and talk with them. Our teachers love having them as volunteers, because they are caring, compassionate and good listeners.”

According to Adler, another significant boon of having ESSO volunteers at Main Street is the cultural diversity they bring: “We have had many Academy students share with our kids about their racial or ethnic backgrounds and traditions. Given that our district is somewhat homogeneous, that has made a real impact.”

Principal Steve Adler of the Main Street School in Exeter shares high fives and handshakes with his students as they head home for the day. Adler is grateful for the involvement of ESSO students in the life of his school.

Honing confidence through sharing

When Gwen English and her husband, Henry Ferrell, moved to Exeter in the early 1990s so that he could join an area urology practice, English, who had previously worked in advertising, decided to apply for a part-time job caring for toddlers in what is now the Academy’s Harris Family Children’s Center. “I thought it would be an interesting way to meet new people, and I liked being with children,” she explains. After spending nearly a decade at the Harris Center, and simultaneously becoming very involved with municipal and environmental projects, English, together with Ferrell, decided to adopt a child. In August 2005, they flew to China to meet their new daughter, Natalie, then 21 months old.

While the responsibilities of motherhood called English away from her work at Exeter, she remained connected to the community. That made it easy, when, in 2007, she decided to approach the Academy about starting a club geared to children adopted from China that focused on Chinese language. Laurie Loosigian P’99, P’01, P’05, then ESSO’s director, was “very receptive to starting up the program,” English recalls.

Now nearly 10 years old, ESSO’s Chinese Culture Club, English explains, “has morphed over time into much more than just a program for learning Mandarin.” Moreover, she adds, it’s gone from being a club for kids adopted from China to one for kids whose families are simply interested in China, including those who may be considering a move overseas.

"At the end of their time here, they're different kids."
Gwen English, founder of ESSO's Chinese Culture Club

Generally led by two to three Chinese Exeter students, Chinese Culture Club is geared to area children up to sixth grade. It meets every other week in the basement of the Academy Center, and while the academic and extracurricular interests of the club leaders tend to dictate the themes of each gathering, topics are always viewed through the lens of current or traditional China.

As the club’s only and longtime adviser, English, who attends each gathering and meets with the co-heads for planning purposes during off weeks, enjoys watching Exonians grow and develop as they engage with local children. “At the end of their time here, they’re different kids,” she says of the Academy club members. “They are stronger and more confident, and I think that is because they are part of a group that embraces their culture and from whom they feel great warmth.”

Gaining a sense of identity

“Trying new clubs was a defining characteristic of my prep year,” explains Grace Gray, an effervescent rising upper from Richmond, Virginia, who, during winter term of her lower year, was selected to serve as one of eight ESSO board members. “Eventually, I found a few that really resonated for me.” One was ESSO Reading Buddies, a reading partner program held once a week at Exeter’s Lincoln Street School. Gray grew so enamored of her eager pupils and so committed to the program that she was elected a club head in the spring of her prep year, an honor usually reserved for older students.

“Another club that is really important to me is ESSO Gal Pals,” she says. “Three of my cross-country teammates ran it when I first joined as a prep. Basically, every other week, on Tuesday evenings, we meet with a group of special-needs women in the Phillips Church basement. We hang out and color, sing karaoke and have dance parties. I am especially close to one woman named Melissa, who is really amazing.”

ESSO is a big, amazing presence that really guides me in my life. ... It opens up a world of connecting with others and making new friends.
Grace Gray '19

As a new ESSO board member, Gray is serving as one of two children’s club coordinators, each of whom is responsible for working with the co-heads of 15 to 20 different children’s clubs. With her fellow board members, she is also undertaking three big-picture ESSO projects: examining how to incorporate service learning into Exeter academics; rebranding ESSO in order to attract even more Exonians to the program; and collaborating with Exeter High School’s Key Club on a number of joint community projects, such as a recent field day, held at Exeter, and a morning spent clearing brush along the Swasey Parkway.

As much as academics or running, ESSO is a defining aspect of Gray’s Exeter experience. “For me, every day that I am involved with ESSO reminds me of who I want to be as a person,” she says. “It opens up a world of connecting with others and making new friends. ESSO is a big, amazing presence that really guides me in my life. In a way, it’s given me a sense of identity.”

Grace Gray reading to youngsters in the Academy Library. 

Amplifying non sibi

When he arrived at Exeter as a new lower from Overland Park, Kansas, Aivant Goyal ’17 recalls, he initially and intentionally got involved with Junior Computing Program (JCP), an ESSO club dedicated to teaching local children how to write computer code. However his deeper involvement with ESSO happened more by accident. “I had made plans to go to the mall one Saturday to see a movie with a friend,” he explains. When that friend overslept, and Goyal set out to find her, he happened to pass the Phelps Science Center. Peeking in the window, he recognized another girl he knew doing LEGO MINDSTORMS (a popular early robotics program) with local school children. “She didn’t know where our mutual friend was, the one who overslept,” Goyal says with a laugh, “but she asked me to stay and help, and I was hooked.” By the time he was an upper, he had become a co-head of both ESSO Robotics and ESSO Computer Programming, and later was selected to become the ESSO board member in charge of off-campus clubs.

Aivant Goyal

Goyal, who will attend the University of California, Berkeley, starting this fall, and plans to study computer science and business, is grateful for his ESSO experiences on a number of levels. “Besides being fun,” he says, “they’ve given me another perspective on life. Now, with these experiences, when I see problems come up, I understand how to get organized and work around them. Also, and without wanting to sound cliché, ESSO has shown me how easy it is to change someone’s life and then to amplify that.”

ESSO has shown me how easy it is to change someone's life and then to amplify that."
Aivant Goyal

Case in point: Through a senior project inspired jointly by his work with ESSO and by the writings of moral philosopher Peter Singer, Goyal is hoping to soon begin “implementing non sibi” beyond Exeter. With the advice and encouragement of Reyes and of Academy Trustees Mark Edwards ’78; P’12, P’14; Peter M. “Scotch” Scocimara ’82; P’16, P’18; and the Academy’s Chief Financial Officer David Hanson, he has begun early marketing of his mobile app, Project EnGive, a philanthropic platform that allows schools to compete against one another to see how many students they can get to donate to myriad local, national and global causes. “The ESSO board members recently spoke with a lot of alumni,” Goyal explains, referring to Exeter reunion gatherings to which the group was invited this spring. “A question we often got was, ‘How are you going to use ESSO going forward?’ If all goes as planned, Project EnGive is one answer to that question.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the summer 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.