Carolyn Fletcher read thousands of essays in her 35 years teaching English at Middlesex Community College.
Through the writing, she was able to peek into the complicated lives of her students. Many were struggling financially. Others said they lacked a mentor. Some were the first in their family to attend college, and had difficulty navigating a new world.
“It’s a daunting and life-changing process” to go to college, said Fletcher, 69, from her Wellesley home. “There’s no support system for some of these people.”
She wanted to help disadvantaged students in some way once she retired from teaching. So in 2011, she and her friend Susan Tofias founded Freshman Fifteen Boston , a nonprofit that donates dormitory supplies to incoming college freshmen.
This summer, the program is sending dorm-room essentials — 15 items in total, hence the name — to 79 recent high school graduates. The items are much of what a new student needs for on-campus life: bed sheets, towels, a laundry bag, a backpack.
For some economically disadvantaged students, the biggest accomplishment is just affording post-secondary education. The small crew of women who run Freshman Fifteen Boston believe their packages can help them adapt to college life.
“These young kids are our future, and they can’t afford this,” said Tofias, 66 . “We just feel that is the best way to start them off at school.”
Kenny Delino, 18, received a Freshman Fifteen package for his first year studying at Boston College. While at Boston College High School, he would look for small ways to save his family money; he would pack meals from home instead of buying from the school cafeteria, or look for class texts online instead of purchasing the printed textbook.
Delino moved into the Boston College dorms in June for an early start program. He said he uses the notebooks from his Freshman Fifteen package for his classes and the desk lamp for nighttime studies.
Receiving dorm materials “is a relief that a lot of people don’t think about and don’t know about,” said Delino, who hopes to study in France while in college. “It’s something that we didn’t have to worry about anymore.”
The cost of assembling and shipping each student package is $630, raised through mail-in and online donations. The bedding and bathroom items are gathered by Bed, Bath & Beyond. Fletcher, Tofias, and organization member Ruth Weinstein pick up the rest.
Students receiving the supplies have come from dozens of high schools in Massachusetts and gone to colleges around the nation. Tofias said the organization, an offshoot of a program started in 2006 in New York, looks for graduates heavily involved in their high schools who come from low-income families.
This includes students who receive assistance from government programs. Most come from families that can contribute little to college tuition. Some students, Tofias said, have no permanent housing.
Diana Mastrocola, college counselor for City on a Hill charter school in Roxbury, said struggling families often don’t think about the added cost of purchasing housing materials.
‘Where we come from, we’re not often given things like this. It seems as if we have to . . . struggle for it.’
“Scholarship money . . . doesn’t cover these hidden costs,” Mastrocola said. “We always talk to our students about the hidden costs of college, and this is definitely one of them.”
She said it’s valuable for students to live in a dorm setting, where they are able to build stronger relationships and participate in more campus activities.
“If you’re going to be on campus, you’re going to want to be comfortable,” she said. “I think Freshman Fifteen alleviates some of that financial burden.”
Fatah Adan, 19, was awarded a Freshman Fifteen package when he graduated from New Mission High School in Hyde Park last year. When he went to pick up his supplies at Harvard College’s mail room, he was greeted by a stack of boxes taller than him.
“I didn’t expect to see that many boxes,” said Adan, now a rising sophomore.
He is the vice president of Harvard’s First Generation Student Union, helping students transition from high school to college. He wishes all the students who seek support could receive dorm materials like he did.
“Where we come from, we’re not often given things like this. It seems as if we have to . . . struggle for it,” said Adan, who has seven siblings. “When you’re given this kind of opportunity, it’s relieving.”
Not all the students attend in-state schools. Javier Gil, 18, graduated from New Mission High in June and will start classes at the University of San Francisco this month.
Students going to school far away have to worry about additional costs, including travel and out-of-state tuition. Freshman Fifteen spares his mother from having to buy dorm items and ship them across the country, he said.
“It’s less money out of her pocket,” Gil said. “Instead of spending all my money on school supplies, I can spend money on textbooks or stuff like that.”
On a recent weekday morning, Tofias, Weinstein, and two volunteers gathered in Fletcher’s garage in Wellesley to pack materials for the students. Dozens of boxes lay open across the garage floor, each filled with a backpack, notebooks, and other small items.
One by one, the packages were examined, taped, and stacked against the right wall of the garage. The names of the recipients’ college were written on each box: Temple, Salem State, University of Massachusetts Lowell. Tofias marked the shipping dates with a highlighter; it’s important they go out on the right date, she said.
The final row of packages was a physical representation of the students who would soon start a new chapter in their education. It’s college life in a box.Miguel Otárola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @motarola123.