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Interview with Griffin Kapelus – Volunteering and Giving Back to the Community

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Griffin Kapelus is a student at the University of Vermont whose extracurricular activities include helping the homeless and combatting food insecurity in Burlington, Vermont.

Griffin Kapelus learned from an early age the importance of addressing social issues, and although he is aware of the fortunate circumstances into which he was born, his parents taught him and his sisters to be aware of their privilege and keep their feet planted firmly on the ground.

While Griffin Kapelus’ mother worked for the Goddard Riverside Community Center for most of his childhood. She still works for the same program that helps provide free tutoring to families and children who could not otherwise afford it.

After school, Griffin Kapelus often spent time doing homework in his mother’s office.  Viewing first-hand the inner workings of a non-profit community center had a powerful impact for him.

Through the guidance of some of his high school teachers, Kapelus began developing some academic interests he still pursues today. One instructor Griffin remembers particularly fondly is his history teacher, who bonded with him over a mutual interest in rock music and also kindled his interest in global studies and politics.

After high school, Kapelus chose to postpone college. Instead, he worked as a busboy and waiter, learning the values of hard work and financial independence. He also started volunteering, an interest he attributes to having observed the socially important work his mother did throughout his childhood and teenage years. Even though he wasn’t studying in school, he learned about politics and international relations by reading the New York Times daily.

When Kapelus was ready to continue his education, he began taking classes part time at Hunter College. He took two classes during his first semester, and both left a lasting impression. The first class was an introductory writing class that Hunter requires its students to take, and Griffin chose to write an argumentative paper on gentrification and displacement in Harlem, which coincided with his developing interest in urban issues and inequality.

Griffin Kapelus said the most impactful class was Approaches to Religion, where the students read books by anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and theologians. Kapelus was so fascinated by instructor Brian Foote’s lectures that he took another course from the instuctor the following semester. Through reading and independent study, he learned about topics in the realm of social issues that he hadn’t explored before.

After Kapelus started his second semester at Hunter College, the global pandemic arrives on US shores, disrupting his academic studies. He returned home to live with his parents and finished the semester remotely. During this time, he sent applications to colleges he was interested in as a transfer student. He was accepted to his top choice, the University of Vermont.

In the fall of 2020, Kapelus began taking classes online at the University of Vermont, including a geography course on race and ethnicity in the United States that further solidified his interest in academic exploration of social issues. However, he also felt a desire to contribute to solving the issues he was exploring in the classroom.

COVID-19 was such a destructive force in so many lives that Kapelus began volunteering again. He started helping out at West Side Campaign Against Hunger, a food pantry in New York City. As a volunteer, his role was at first limited to helping with moving boxes and packing bags. However, as his time there continued and he took on additional hours, the role grew. He interacted with people who had been food insecure for many years and others who began coming to the food bank due to the economic collapse brought about by the pandemic.

This past summer he finally moved to Burlington to get settled before starting in-person classes in the fall. He took a few classes online and started to put down some roots in his new city. He began volunteering at an organization called Feeding Chittenden, which is focused on tackling food insecurity in Chittenden County, where Burlington is located.

Griffin Kapelus said Feeding Chittenden was an interesting contrast to the larger-scale operation in New York. However, the most notable aspect of his summer was the job he took at a homeless shelter in Burlington. It was his first time as a paid employee doing social work, and he had far more responsibility than he ever could in a volunteer capacity. He said the ability to interact in a more significant way with the homeless population in the city has brought a deeper and more nuanced perspective of related social issues than he could get in a classroom and as a volunteer.

In the fall, Griffin will be taking classes in person at the University of Vermont, and his primary role will be that of a college student. That said, he still intends to continue with both his volunteer work and his job at the homeless shelter. He is looking forward to applying his academic interests to real-world scenarios while pursuing his other interests, including playing intramural soccer and attending as many concerts as he can at the small venues in Burlington.

Can you share your personal approach to managing an effective balance between life, school and work?

As a college student, the majority of my time is my own to manage. Outside of the time I spend in classes and at my job, I can choose when during the day to work on assignments versus when to schedule more relaxing activities. I’ve found that a very effective strategy, which I happened to have learned from a TED Talk I watched online, is to first place the things into my schedule that will give me the most joy. So, when I am planning out my day or week, that means I start by putting in items like working out, grabbing a coffee with friends, or a shift volunteering. Only after those are in place do I block out times to do homework or run errands. It really does allow it to feel as if I am not sacrificing too much of what brings me the most relaxation and joy in life.

What is your approach to starting a new project?

I would not say that I have any particularly bold approach to starting a new project. My tendency is to simply open up a blank word documents and just start putting ideas down right away, even if they eventually get tossed. For me, there’s nothing more frustrating and anxiety-provoking than a blank page, so I’ve found that just having some words on the page alleviates that and allows me to at least find my way to a best starting point.

What are some of the keys to effective decision making?

In my current role at work where I am frequently interacting with guests, decisions are more often than not split second. For example, if a resident is emotionally escalated, how do I best calm them down? What can I point them to in that moment that has worked for them in the past? These kinds of real-time decisions are most important to my role at the moment. After further education, and hopefully moving up the latter in the social work or non-profit world, I am sure I will confront larger scale, longer-term decisions. For the time being however, it is more important for me to react quickly to manage the issues that frequently crop up at a homeless shelter.

How do you manage the stress of all the things you are not able to complete?

I think it’s an important and frankly oftentimes difficult skill to compartmentalize work, but that really is the best way to go about it. Like I mentioned before, as long as I am making time for the things that matter to me most, the work that may hang over my head for a period of time is always able to take a back seat at some point during the day. It is during those times that I can decompress and be better equipped to manage the stress of looming projects when I tune back into school and work.

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