An Interview with Sandy Helling, Senior Associate Director

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An Interview with Sandy Helling, Senior Associate Director





In honor of our 40th Anniversary year, we are looking back on the past four decades and sharing our stories. We sat down to talk to longtime staff member Sandy Helling about her work as Community Impact's Senior Associate Director.


How did you come across Community Impact and when did you start working for the organization?

I found the position listed in the NYTimes in 1987. At that time, it was a position to manage service projects with a Catholic Campus Ministry called “Diakonia". I interviewed with the Executive Director Joe DeGenova and Father Paul Dinter and we talked about my direct service and community organizing background as founder and director of a welfare rights organization. I was hired for the position by Catholic Campus Ministry and a few years later this organization gradually evolved into Community Impact.


Can you describe what you do for the organization?

In my role as Senior Associate Director, I have a wide range of responsibilities including administration, fundraising, grant writing, and fiscal and program management. I am also involved in setting agency policy and program evaluations. In addition, I oversee programming in two areas - Adult Education and Emergency Services. Lastly, I strive to continuously forge new community partnerships.


What’s the most fulfilling part of your job?

I really enjoy my interaction with a variety of constituents and stakeholders, such as coaching Columbia students to implement the programs, directly supporting  participants and developing/maintaining relationships with our many University and Community Partners.


How has Community Impact changed over the years?

The organization has broadened its student participation from primarily undergrads to include significant participation at the graduate level with schools such as TC, SSW and GSAS. We have evolved all of our programs to incorporate evaluation systems and metrics to capture outcomes that measure program effectiveness. Work study students have also become a critical part of our community services, both in youth and adult programs.


What is the most memorable experience you have had working at Community Impact?

My greatest pleasure is witnessing the life-long impact CI has on some of our participants and Columbia students.  For example:

  • Felicia Hunter, a participant who started in our lowest level TASC class, completed four levels. She went on to attend the Borough of Manhattan Community College and eventually transferred to GS at Columbia. She went on to receive her Master of Fine Arts degree in film at GSAS and had her student film shown at the Berlin Film Festival. Felicia now has a successful career in the film industry.
  • Jennifer Gonnerman, a former work study employee at CI who has dedicated her life to social justice as a journalist, was nominated for a Pulitzer prize in Journalism for her New Yorker piece "Before the Law" which documented the story of Kalief Browder. Jennifer's book “Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett.” was nominated for the National Book Award in non-fiction. 


How has it been operating the organization during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Operating during the pandemic has been equally challenging and rewarding.  Everything we do to offer our programs and help the community is much harder, but even more essential and valuable for our participants. For example, continuing to offer our free classes virtually in ELA (English Language Acquisition) and HSE (High School Equivalency) during this period gives our participants the critical tools they need to help them get a job or a better job during these challenging times.


What are you most looking forward to for the organization in 2021?

I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing our volunteers, work study employees and participants in person! I also anticipate continuing to work cooperatively with staff across the University and other Community partners wherever our goals intersect. 


What should Community Impact focus on in the next decade?

I hope we can continue to collaborate across our program areas to provide holistic services for families in our community, expand our technology skills training- a critical life skill missing among many of our lower income families -  and partner with neighborhood organizations to address emerging community needs


How can we get students to see the value in community service?

I think the best way to teach the value of community service is by having our Columbia students work directly with participants and families so they can see first-hand how their efforts can make a difference. I believe direct service informs one’s attitudes about policy and effective programs. I believe helping Columbia students gain an understanding of public policy and experience direct community service provides the foundation to effect social change.


What does “community” mean to you?

Community Impact's motto from the early days still resonates with me: "Together we can make a difference!" Community service can be the catalyst for change.