Monday, July 20, 2020

It's a Time of Grace

When Grace Zhang began the second half of her freshman year at Cornell University in January, little did she realize she would soon be putting into practice leadership skills she was discussing in class – and helping a soup kitchen at the same time.

Grace Zhang
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she says her leadership professor, Donna Lynn Haeger, mentioned opportunities to help out. She pointed Grace to Cornell’s “Serve in Place” grant, created to help communities suffering from the pandemic.

Grace (who is majoring in applied economics and management with a minor in leadership) did some research, and decided to apply for the grant on behalf of the local Front-Line Appreciation Group (FLAG), which, she explained, has been “delivering snacks and supplies to 30 different hospital units and other front-line groups” like police stations, fire departments, and soup kitchens. She won an $800 grant and ever since has been coordinating an effort to benefit West Side Boutique and Mother Marianne's West Side Kitchen.

Grace noted: “I definitely think I’ve used a lot of the skills I learned in Prof. Haeger’s class. For example, we had one class where we discussed our leadership styles and weaknesses, and I found out I tended to be very impulsive, with a focus on reaching the goal, rather than thinking through the process… I was actively trying to slow myself down before undertaking this project, and learn more before jumping in.”

So, she added, “I brainstormed, reached out to various local groups, and really tried to make sure I’d be making a difference instead of potentially wasting my grant money.”

The leadership class was supposed to include a hands-on component, she said, “since leadership tends to be hands-on,” but the pandemic forced her to return home and continue the class online. Ironically, the pandemic allowed her to get that hands-on experience,

Grace needed to recruit people to help her endeavor and took her professor’s advice to approach groups rather than individuals. She contacted the Honor Society at New Hartford Central Schools (where she attended elementary and middle school before transferring to the private Manlius Pebble Hill School in Syracuse). The result: four students (Richard Chen, Cassandra Koziol, Danielle Mesi, Leon Zong) stepped up and have been joining Grace at the soup kitchen almost every week.


From left: Richard, Cassandra, Danielle, Grace and Leon. Photo by Nancy Robert.

Grace talked excitedly about the soup kitchen and boutique. “They not only provide food, but help people get back on their feet.” She pointed to the example of providing new clothes for people going to job interviews.

The students initially purchased and donated toiletries and virus-protection supplies such as forehead thermometers, masks, sanitizer, and soap dispensers.

Grace thought some of the supplies were overpriced, but thanks to Leon, whom she called a “tech whiz,” they ferreted out better prices for the same quality online.

More recently the students have been helping to reorganize the boutique displays and do whatever is needed for reopening (such as sorting and labeling clothing).

While the soup kitchen converted to providing meals-to-go during the pandemic, the boutique had to close, and is now looking to reopen sometime in August – freshly painted and newly stocked.


Leon Zong
Richard Chen
Two of the high school students, Leon and Richard, were sorting through donated clothes when Leon mentioned the honor society’s core value of service, plus he said that “it feels good to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Richard said he didn’t like how his “time wasn’t being used well in quarantine,” but “this makes a difference.”


Boutique Coordinator Nancy Robert said the students may not realize how much their presence has meant to her.

“We treat the people we serve with dignity and respect… They’re helping us do that.”

In fact, she added, everything the students do “is heart-warming.”

Perhaps like a servant-leader, Grace’s response is a simple, “It’s nothing.”
Grace Zhang and Nancy Robert
Grace Zhang with Boutique Coordinator Nancy Robert. Photo by R. Stronach.

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