“I couldn’t do it by myself, but I knew that there was a need in the community,” says Ashlee Downing-Duke, describing the spike in community support during the past several months. Downing-Duke is the associate director of Student Activities and Leadership at St. Lawrence and also the campus coordinator for Volunteer Services and Community Partnerships. However, a more accurate title would probably be Ashlee Downing-Duke, generosity superconductor, as she rattles off 20 or more examples of the St. Lawrence community’s efforts to show up for their neighbors in the North Country during this public health and economic crisis.
“We actually have seen our numbers almost doubled,” says Downing-Duke about the University’s Campus Kitchen program, one of the programs she coordinates to help feed local families in need. “With our sit-down dinners, we would have fed about 30 to 40 people each week,” she says. “Now, we’re feeding at least 65 people a week with to-go meals.”
Downing-Duke has made an enormous logistical puzzle sound easy, especially considering the mass exodus of faculty, students, and staff as the COVID-19 concerns prompted the necessity to transition to remote operations for everyone in mid-March. Despite the upheaval, Downing-Duke has kept Campus Kitchens operational and meeting increased demand. The international and domestic students who remained on campus for various reasons temporarily filled the void, and a number of the faculty and coaches also stepped up to help. Charles A. Dana Professor of Statistics Michael Schuckers and his wife, Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Elizabeth Margaret Vilas Professor of History Evelyn Jennings; Maurer Associate Professor of Performance and Communication Arts Alison Rowlan; Associate Professor of Psychology Cathy Crosby; Associate Professor of Performance and Communication Arts Allison Rowland; and Head Women’s Soccer Coach Sinead McSharry and her partner are among those who have volunteered to prepare or deliver food.
I think for me, personally, I get energized when I have the ability to give back to others. This is a challenging time for all of us. And, if I can make someone’s day a little less challenging or make sure they don’t have to worry about where dinner’s going to be that night, it honestly, it gives me energy.
With financial support from Thelmo, Downing-Duke hired two student interns to run the Campus Kitchens program over the summer. “It’s helping the local community, and it’s allowing the students to have paid internships when there aren’t a lot of options right now,” she says. “So, it’s really helping the students, but it’s helping them help others, if that makes any sense.”
Other efforts include distributing a continuous bounty of donated goods that has transformed her family’s front porch into something akin to Mary Poppin’s magic bag. “My wife and I play a guessing game of what’s going to be on the porch this week,” says Downing-Duke, after she sends a campus email specifying needs for toiletries, or nonperishable goods. “Every time, so many people respond. And, every time I open my door, there is another donation: pasta, soap, toothbrushes, toys, clothing.” Downing-Duke facilitates the safe delivery of these goods to the local community, including to the students who were unable to make it home. “It is impressive to see people really try to support others, even when everyone is still struggling themselves.”
“Students also find ways to help out,” says Downing-Duke describing efforts of the Sophomore Council to raise $800 through a virtual fundraiser in March, for the local Canton neighborhood center and local food programs. Several student groups fired up online fundraisers immediately following their departure from campus during the rising concerns of the novel coronavirus pandemic. “Even though they weren’t physically here,” she says, “they knew that this was their home and wanted to help out.”
Coordinating all of the outreach takes stamina, but Downing-Duke says, “I think for me, personally, I get energized when I have the ability to give back to others. This is a challenging time for all of us. And, if I can make someone’s day a little less challenging or make sure they don’t have to worry about where dinner’s going to be that night, it honestly gives me energy.”
Her efforts also continue the lessons learned from her parents and one she and her wife, Jordan Duke ’15, are passing on to her 9-year-old son, Andrew. “I think the way I’ve been able to do this is really not separating the two, and instead, inviting my family into something that’s so important to me.” It is especially important because the Downing-Duke family has also felt the impact of community support firsthand.
“When we started foster care,” Downing-Duke says, “we literally got 24-hour notice, and then, a baby showed up on our doorstep with only a backpack.” Downing-Duke sent out a single email to campus and by the end of the day had everything they needed for the new addition.
“Nobody asked me to pay for anything. Most people said I could keep it or said, ‘When you’re done, just give it back to me.’” Being on the receiving end of the community’s generosity just brings the work full circle and deepens Downing-Duke’s commitment.
“The work that I do is super important and it could not have happened without a community,” says Downing-Duke. “I might be the one who’s connecting the dots, but I need the support of everyone else to make it happen.”
And, true to form, Downing-Duke adds, “If you need anything else, just feel free to shoot me an email. I am around in between meetings, so, happy to help.”