Published on 11/12/2020 in the Addison County Independent. By John Flowers.
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College sophomore Jack Eschert has been helping others for about as long as he can remember. It probably started when, at age 5, he joined the Cub Scouts in his hometown of Avon, Conn.
“That experience opened my eyes to a lot of things,” Eschert, now 20, said during a recent phone interview.
“Growing up in a suburban town in Connecticut, it’s very easy to lose sight of everything outside the suburban-town bubble.”
He’s busted through that bubble in a big way, and Middlebury-area homeless are the beneficiaries.
Eschert, with help from fellow students Ali DePaolo and Ryan Ashe, recently dropped off more than 20 boxes of donated, nonperishable food items at the Charter House Coalition’s (CHC) warming shelter at 27 North Pleasant St. in Middlebury. The food will help round out meals that are being provided to warming shelter guests and the 72 homeless individuals dispersed in Middlebury-area motels and hotels.
“He’s such a fine young man,” CHC Director Doug Sinclair said of Eschert. “The amazing thing is, he came and made it happen. I’ve never seen a student able to pull something off as well as he pulled that off, with just the help of a couple of people — in a more challenging situation than normal. He’s such a fine young man, with great leadership qualities, to be able to do that.”
The food drive for the Charter House is just the latest in a series of charitable activities that Eschert has organized in recent years. He feels fortunate to have been able to live a comfortable life, which has in turn put him in a position to do good deeds for those less fortunate.
As a seventh-grader Eschert founded his own charity, called “Helping Hands for Connecticut.” He received help along the way from his middle school teachers and a tech-savvy older sister who assisted him in setting up a Facebook page.
“I realized I had the capacity to make a bigger change in my surrounding community,” he said.
One of his first projects was gathering school supplies for students in the city of Hartford. Then, as a high schooler, he spearheaded winter clothing drives for a homeless shelter run by the Cornerstone Foundation in Vernon, Conn.
“It was a really big success,” Eschert recalled of his charitable effort.
By his senior year, Eschert had established a club focused on winter clothing drives for a local shelter for victims of domestic violence. He put collection bins around the school, sent emails to the entire student body, and networked with different student groups to enlist support.
“I appointed a successor to ensure the work would continue long after I graduated,” he said.
Eschert was committed to continuing his philanthropic ways as a Middlebury College student. The COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from doing charitable work for the community this past spring, so he focused on what he could do as a sophomore this fall.
“I had extra motivation,” he said. “Time in college is precious, and I’m not someone who just wants to do something in high school that’s meaningful and then not continue it in college.”
SEEING A NEED
Eschert learned about the Charter House Coalition’s warming shelter through a friend on the Middlebury College rugby team. He found out that a lot of student athletes donate their time to the CHC throughout the school year, helping prepare and serve food, interacting with homeless guests, and other work.
“It occurred to me that if sports aren’t going on this year and we’re not really allowed to leave campus, who’s going to be able to help out with Charter House?” Eschert said.
So he contacted Sinclair to get a sense of the most pressing needs of the Middlebury-area homeless population.
“He brought up the fact that the biggest need for the shelter was food,” Eschert said. “He mentioned that if there was any way we could get non-perishable or canned items for the shelter, that would be amazing.”
Eschert knew it was a reasonable ask. He used the same harvesting model as the one he employed in Connecticut: Set up donation bins and spread the word among the student body.
He officially launched the food drive Sept. 15, after the college had initiated “phase two” of its COVID-related reopening plan, which allowed students to go off campus. This meant students could once again shop at area supermarkets.
It didn’t take long for the food bins to fill up. As a member of the college’s Student Government Association, Eschert had multiple ways of alerting fellow students to the food drive.
On Oct. 10, he and fellow students Ali DePaolo and Ryan Ashe delivered more than 20 boxes of nonperishable food items to the warming shelter, along with other goods donated by students and faculty. The boxes included cereals, crackers, fruit cups, cookies, peanut butter and other items. A majority of the food is packaged in single servings, and thus is safer to distribute during the pandemic.
“It was really great to have the opportunity to make this impact, at a time when a lot of us are trapped on campus and feeling like we’re disassociated with what we regard as a ‘normal’ college experience,” Eschert said.
And he’s committed to continuing his philanthropic endeavors through college. This food drive will serve as a pilot project for a club Eschert plans on launching this year at the college. The club, which he will call “Helping Hands for the Community,” will conduct regular drives for local nonprofits to address food insecurity and housing needs.
Anyone interested in helping Eschert with his food drives can reach him at email@example.com.