Hands to Help Leaders Named Engaged Scholars

Rosana Urbaez and Lisbeth Valdez, director and assistant director of Merrimack's neighborhood resource center Hands to Help, were chosen from a nationally nominated group of community engagement professionals to participate in the 2021-2022 Campus Compact Engaged Scholars Initiative (ESI).

The ESI brings together early-career faculty and staff from across the country in a yearlong leadership and professional development program to help advance civic and community engagement across higher education. Urbaez and Valdez were nominated as part of the Presidential Civic and Community Engagement Initiative.

“Nominating Rosana and Lisbeth for the ESI is important not only for their own development as community engagement professionals but also for the College as we seek to advance our impact with local external communities,” said Elaine Ward, associate professor and special assistant to the president for civic and community engagement.

Hands to Help, Merrimack’s neighborhood resource center based both on campus and in the city of Lawrence, has been vital to connecting the broader community with community members at Merrimack. Under the guidance of Fr. Ray Dlugos, vice president for mission and ministry, their office may be best known for their after-school tutoring program, tax filing support, the annual days of service Mack Gives Back, holiday toy drives and back-to-school backpack drives.

As their work continues, however, Urbaez and Valdez have their sights set on expanding the impact of Hands to Help programming, increasing equity in the neighborhoods of Lawrence and engaging the Merrimack College community in sustainable capacity-building community partnerships.

“Our work at Hands to Help is so personal to us,” Urbaez said. “We were initially drawn to the ESI because we want to make sure that we are being impactful in all the things we do in the community. We want to see how we can structure our programs to make sure that we are making the most impact and working alongside community members to provide resources and support.”

Campus Compact, a national coalition of colleges and universities seeking to advance civic engagement in higher education, launched the ESI specifically to support early-career professionals just like the Hands to Help team. ESI programming engages faculty and staff working on critical community engagement and has a particular focus on equity-based best practices institutionally and out in the world. 

The 2021-2022 cohort of engaged scholars will participate in a year-long leadership development program that includes retreats, webinars and conferences. Participants must also choose an institutional change project to advance civic and community engagement. Urbaez and Valdez will focus on developing a strategic plan for Hands to Help that aligns with the College’s Agenda for the Future. Throughout the year, they will receive personalized mentorship and support from the ESI and Campus Compact as they complete this project.

“The fellowship is an opportunity for us as young professionals to learn the language of community engagement work,” Valdez said. “Often, when professors come to us, they have their formal knowledge and academic discipline to bring to the work we do. On the other side of that, we have the lived experience. I think the ESI will offer us the support, guidance and knowledge to better prepare us to work both with the community and with our faculty and student colleagues.”

Founded in 2015, Hands to Help already provides invaluable services and resources to community members in Lawrence. Outside of their trademark campus events, their team runs a drop-in after-school tutoring center, offers college application support, job preparation, resume building and more to so many community members in Lawrence. 

With the additional support and opportunity to build a strategic plan, Urbaez and Valdez are eager to expand Hands to Help offerings. They are specifically interested in developing a full circuit of English as a second language (ESL) courses. Valdez says their team will work to establish tiered courses – from beginner to advanced – which will allow community members at all levels to participate, learn and feel supported and encouraged in their progress.

Through their work with the ESI cohort, they also hope to continue to strengthen Merrimack’s ties to the community, further experiential learning and develop opportunities for personal and professional growth for Merrimack students, faculty and staff. The Hands to Help strategic plan will help direct future programming, invest in community partnerships and create pathways for members of the Merrimack community to responsibly participate in community engagement work.

Hands to Help will also house the expanding Food Recovery Network, the College’s student-led food rescue program. This work will greatly contribute to Merrimack’s commitment to food justice in the region.

“The understanding that knowledge can only be created through formal education and research in the classroom is something we’re interested in thinking about more critically,” Urbaez said. “People have a lot of knowledge and information from their lived experiences. We’re looking forward to finding new ways to value those experiences both at Merrimack and in the city of Lawrence, because I think that they can teach us a lot.”

After the initial ESI orientation this summer, Urbaez and Valdez will join a cohort of 22 early-career professionals from 17 other colleges and universities across the country. At the end of the year, Campus Compact will host all ESI scholars in person to share their community engagement projects and come together as a network.

“Hands to Help has long been an integral part of strengthening Merrimack’s relationships within the city of Lawrence and creating teaching, learning, research and community engagement pathways for our faculty and students,” Ward said. “I felt the ESI was a way for the College to recognize and invest in their potential. I’m excited to see how their work will grow with the training from Campus Compact this year.”

Learn More

Hands to Help

Engaged Scholars Initiative

Presidential Civic and Community Engagement Initiative


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