The grant request raised eyebrows and spoke volumes: community college students in Waterbury needed a food pantry.

Sarah Gager, dean of student services at Naugatuck Valley Community College (NVCC), explained, “When we had a downturn in the economy, that was a significant impact on families…And it’s become very, very difficult for a lot of students not only with food insecurity, but now homelessness. Sometimes they’ll stay on a friend’s couch, a relative’s couch, a shelter…there are students sometimes in tents.”

“But you know what impresses me?” she added. “They’re still here.”

Connecticut Community Foundation’s expanded and flexible support in 2017 gave NVCC students an “extra hand to move forward successfully,” said Gager.

It took many forms, starting with an oversized, commercial refrigerator and nutritious food to fill it for a new, on-campus food pantry.

Offering privacy, the pantry allows students to “grab and go” healthy meals or groceries.

Said Gager, “When you see a student trying to decide: do they use their financial aid money to buy a textbook or do they use it to buy food or pay rent so they have a place to stay…That’s not a choice that anybody in this day and age should have to make.”

Malcolm Baldrige, through a fund he established over three decades ago at Connecticut Community Foundation, is also helping to reduce the academic barriers for NVCC students.

Baldrige headed Waterbury-based Scovill Manufacturing Company in the 1960s and later served as the United States Secretary of Commerce. His legacy lives on through the Malcolm Baldrige Scholarship Fund, enabling the Foundation to provide grants for students pursuing advanced manufacturing technology certificate at NVCC. These dollars help students pay for courses not covered by federal financial aid.

The yearlong certificate training is highly computer-based and teaches programmable logic—while building toward well-paying careers for male and female students, in what had been traditionally a male-dominated field.  And, graduates are meeting an unmet need for skilled workers in Connecticut.

“They can’t hire people quickly enough who have the right skill set,” Gager said of Connecticut manufacturers.

Additional grant funding from the Foundation enables NVCC to hire more students to work on campus for learning and mentoring in their career field of  choice. Because of the convenience and flexibility of jobs on campus, students are more likely to finish their degrees.

Gager concluded, “If you give students enough of a boost so they get over that tipping point, they’ll think, ‘I can see the end in sight. I can make it.’”

Yes they can.

Photo: Naugatuck Valley Community College student at work in the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center on the Waterbury campus.