Patrick Verrilli, a Boston College sophomore, leaned on his elbows, wrinkled his forehead, and considered his options as the endgame approached in a taut checkers match with 12-year-old Keanu of Dorchester.
“He’s already beaten me once,” said Verrilli, a 20-year-old accounting major from Wilton, Conn. “It’s coming down to the wire again.”
Once again, the 12-year-old emerged victorious at the Bird Street Community Center in Uphams Corner, letting a small smile slip as he remained unbeaten on a recent afternoon.
Verrilli smiled, too, and not just from the satisfaction of seeing his friendly rival brighten up. Verrilli has bonded with Keanu in recent months through BC’s signature community service program, which for 50 years has given students the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of youngsters from disadvantaged neighborhoods and people on the margins.
This academic year, the Pulse program has dispersed about 500 BC students among 53 nonprofit groups, community partners such as the Pine Street Inn, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, and the Samaritans. They deal with immigrants, refugees, people living with HIV and AIDs, people recovering from substance abuse, and the homeless, among many others.
At Bird Street, Verrilli is one of about 10 BC undergraduates who spend a total of eight hours a week, over two days, working with dozens of children at the center. They play games with them. They help with homework. Often, they just chat.
Pulse was one of the first service-learning initiatives in the country, born of a desire to bridge the university’s philosophy and theology classes and the myriad community needs outside the classroom, BC officials said.
“The students’ hearts are opened by meeting the people. And when hearts are converted, minds can be converted as well,” said Meghan Sweeney, a BC theology professor who has directed the program for six years. “I want them to see that their well-being is tied in with the well-being of others."
Pulse began in January 1970 when the student government president called Pat Byrne — then a BC graduate student, now a BC philosophy professor — to gauge his interest in starting an internship program that would give students academic credit for volunteering in the community.
The notion intrigued Byrne, a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. The original idea was to promote rapid social change through coordinated, nonviolent student action.
“My goal was to change the world. Fairly soon, I came to realize that what was changing was our students,” recalled Byrne, who has remained part of the program, which integrates classwork with the volunteer effort.
Verrilli said he has felt that change.
“Just to be a role model figure for a lot of these kids is something I strive to do,” he said. “What really blows my mind is how positive they are. Just to be able to remain so positive and full of energy is something I find very special moving forward.”
Although BC students are required to take philosophy and theology courses, the Pulse program is optional, yet in high demand. About 60 students are on the waiting list.
“Nobody is being forced to take the classes,” Sweeney said. “We’re not looking to create 500 social workers.”
Instead, part of the goal is to build awareness of an often-unfamiliar world, and doing it without condescension or being patronizing.
“I want to deepen their empathy but also deepen their knowledge,” Byrne said.
"Issues that they may never have heard about become very alive and concrete for them,” he added. “They’ve heard that there’s hunger in the world. Suddenly, what was just a statistic becomes an individual person.”
Over a half-century, more than 17,000 BC students have contributed 3.2 million hours of volunteer service, university officials said.
“It’s a way to connect with philosophy and theology in a real-world way,” said Helen Priemer, 20, a sophomore from Bay Village, Ohio. “It’s a different world from where I grew up.”
Donna Woodson, a case manager at Bird Street, said the students have been a critical help to the center, which offers a wide range of activities, many of them educational, for youth from Uphams Corner and other inner-city neighborhoods.
"I don’t think we could do our jobs if we didn’t have their help,” Woodson said.
On this recent afternoon, more than checkers was in the mix. Off a second-floor room set up with sofas and games, nine children ranging from 5 to 12 years old squealed with delight as they and their mentors made “slime," a colorful concoction of stringy, dripping goo.
Sherina Elibert, a 20-year-old BC student from Brooklyn, N.Y., smiled broadly as she saw reflections of her younger self.
The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Elibert said she also had been helped by older mentors who visited her childhood schools.
“This is an urban community, similar to back home,” Elibert said. “I thought it would be cool to serve people like me.”
When she began working at Bird Street, Elibert said, casual conversations about school were not popular with the children.
“They’d say, ‘It’s boring, I hate it,’ ” Elibert recalled. “Now, we talk about college. They’ll say, ‘I want to go there. How’s the food?’ ”
Kimaya Randall, an 8-year-old from Uphams Corner, now has college on her radar.
“When I get more education, I can actually do things," Kimaya said. “And if someone asks me a question, I’ll be able to answer it.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.