With the many issues that college students face today, it can be hard to find a balance between focusing on yourself and focusing on the environment around you. For Symbiosis, a program within the volunteer-based Waltham Group at Brandeis, students can balance both and make a difference within their local community.
Marissa Lazaroff ’18 is an Environmental Studies major with a minor in French and Francophone Studies, and is one of the Coordinators for Symbiosis, as well as one of the student Co-Presidents of Waltham Group. Lazaroff along with her other Coordinator, Allan Zelaya ’19, organize the group, contact community partners, manage transportation and food, and set the semester-long calendar of events for Symbiosis.
Because Symbiosis is the Waltham Group program focused on the environment, Lazaroff said “they wanted to pick an environmental name” that would be fitting for their goals. Symbiosis is a biological term meaning a relationship that affects two different organisms, and so the group strives to create a positive relationship between humans and the environment.
The program was chartered by Waltham Group at the end of Lazaroff’s first year in the spring of 2015 because at that point there was no Waltham group that was focused on the environment. Lazaroff was looking for more opportunities to participate on campus, and after going on a volunteer vacation trip with Waltham Group to do trail work on the Appalachian Trail, she immediately applied for the chance to work with the newly founded Symbiosis.
She was hired as the first ever coordinator-in-training for Symbiosis and the group really took off in the fall of 2015. It is now on its third year of running, with more than 200 members on their listserv and upwards of 50 volunteers attending their events.
Symbiosis has three main projects that they focus on during the semester. The first is environmental education at the Prospect Hill Kid’s Club, which is another Waltham Group program. Symbiosis goes once every other week to Prospect Hill to “put on an environmental themed program and games, things like potting plants,” explained Lazaroff.
The second project is new for the group and is being tested this semester. Symbiosis is partnering with Lemberg Children’s Center and doing something that Lazaroff named “Eco-Architecture,” meaning that they will be learning how to build structures like greenhouses, and waterfalls that can be used as water fountains at the center. This will be beneficial for the kids because “they will be able to use them in their garden and be more eco-friendly,” and will also help Symbiosis learn how to work with the environment in ways that can later be brought to Prospect Hill or other programs, said Lazaroff of the project.
Finally, Symbiosis hosts multiple one-time service events during the semester for volunteers to get involved in. These include river cleanups and “weatherizing,” which Lazaroff explained meant volunteers would go into low income homes in Waltham and make them more environmentally friendly. For example, volunteers have put weather proofing around windows which helps with home insulation and also reduces the cost of bills. “One of our favorite one-time events is also farming. We love to go farming!” Lazaroff mentioned. Another very popular service event with Symbiosis is volunteering at local animal shelters.
In terms of why Symbiosis is important, Lazaroff said that “with Brandeis’ mission of social justice, it’s really difficult to tackle a lot of the other issues we’re tackling if our environment is failing.” She said that there are a lot of environmental justice issues in the surrounding area and “we need to support our planet.”
“A lot of the work we do doesn’t seem important.” Lazaroff said Symbiosis volunteers in the past had a one-time service event of weeding around campus, and while it may not seem very impactful, Lazaroff said that “some people may not care about the environment unless it affects them.” So, if the environment around them looks beautiful due to these small tasks, then they may feel more invested.
This semester, Symbiosis also has several goals related to their volunteers. They want to increase participation and make sure the volunteers feel like they are doing meaningful work in the community. She would want everyone to know the history behind the farm they’re working at, for example, so they understand what they are doing there and how their actions are making an impact in the community besides just assisting with the farming itself.
Lazaroff’s favorite event that Symbiosis has done so far was the first event that the group held. “We went garlic planting at Land’s Sake Farm in Weston,” a farm that was actually started with the help of Brandeis Professor Brian Donahue, “and it has become a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] which is a program like a crop share,” Lazaroff explained. The volunteers planted garlic to go towards the crop share, and part of the share goes to a local homeless shelter.
Because produce from crop shares is sold for a lower price than in grocery stores, the garlic they planted would go to people in need. “It was so much fun to just be in the dirt, but it also felt like we were really helping out the community,” Lazaroff explained. Lazaroff also returned to the farm with Professor Donahue’s Food and Farming class and was able to see the field of garlic that they had planted, and said that it was an amazing feeling to see the outcome of their hard work.
Lazaroff explained that joining the Waltham Group is important for her because “we are so lucky to be at Brandeis, there are so many things we can do to make the world a better place even if it’s very simple. We don’t have to save the world, but we can make a little difference” by joining various programs and becoming involved in the community. As Lazaroff stated, “The environment of Waltham is extremely diverse and we want to celebrate it.”
One of Lazaroff’s favorite parts about being a coordinator for Symbiosis is being able to sift through all of the different projects in the greater Boston area that the group can get involved in, because “seeing all of the amazing work that people are doing is so inspiring.” Even if they can’t get involved in all of them, she said it was uplifting to know that they are happening.
The time commitment of a Symbiosis volunteer varies, since the Prospect Hill volunteers meet every week for either an hour to plan their interactive activities or an hour and a half when they travel to Prospect Hill. The Lemberg project is still being developed but it will either be weekly or biweekly for no more than two hours. One-time events can last anywhere from ten minutes to five hours. Lazaroff says “you can do as much or as little as you want and still help make a difference.” If you are interested in joining Symbiosis or learning more about upcoming events, send them an email at email@example.com.