On Campus

Fellowship winners plan to uphold Keegan family values

The winners of this year’s Marina Keegan Fellowship, Emily Plump and Sam Savitz (both ’20), plan to work on projects that have close connections to the family of the late alumna, whose commitment to arts and activism annually inspires Upper School (US) students to conceive meaningful projects in her honor. This summer, Emily plans to film and edit a video that will raise awareness about rare diseases, and Sam hopes to increase efficiency in her local food pantry by gathering data on its operations and donating new materials.

English Teacher Beth McNamara, a member of the eight-person committee that determines the fellowship winners, said Emily’s project aligns with topics Marina and her family also valued during her lifetime. Marina was born with celiac disease, Ms. McNamara said, and because it wasn’t commonly diagnosed at the time, there wasn’t much of a community of patients and their families. 

“Tracy [Keegan], Marina’s mom, started a Children’s Hospital outreach group for families dealing with celiac disease,” Ms. McNamara said. “Marina herself became a spokesperson: there were videos of her taking questions from teenagers about what it was like to be diagnosed with that disease, so [Emily’s project] absolutely fits in.”

 Sam’s project targeting local food pantries also parallels the work Marina’s mother did when she started a gluten-free food pantry called Pierce’s Pantry after Marina was diagnosed with celiac disease, Ms. McNamara added. 

“Both [projects] felt very close to Marina,” Ms. McNamara said. “We don’t necessarily look for that degree of specificity, but this year they happened to be.”

Emily said she hopes her video will bring attention to people with a lysosomal storage disease, a rare condition caused by an enzyme deficiency that leaves waste product accumulating in the body’s cells. Her $580 grant will pay for a video editing tutorial and gasoline as she drives around interviewing people affected by the diseases, she said. 

Last summer while shadowing scientists researching rare genetic neurological diseases at Boston Children’s Hospital, Emily met several patients, including an 8-year-old girl, Mila, who has a lysosomal storage disease called Batten’s. Symptoms of Batten’s disease generally don’t appear until age 3 or 4, when those who have it slowly lose speech and movement. Many who have the disease don’t live past the age of 10.

“I got to talk with [Mila’s] mother, and she’s just the sweetest little girl,” Emily said. “I heard a lot about her story and about how her parents had done so much for her specific disease, and that inspired me to raise awareness for people like her.” 

Apart from her time in the lab, Emily said reading Marina’s book, The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories, inspired her project.

“[Marina] talked about there being an ‘abundance of people’ who were there for her at Yale, and I put that into context with people with rare diseases,” Emily said. “There are 350 million people with rare diseases, which creates a big community, but then there are thousands of different types of rare diseases, so very few people with the same rare disease have a shared community.”

Fostering this type of community for patients with a lysosomal storage disease—and creating a community between the public and the patients—are some of her project goals, Emily said. 

“It’s important to expose high school students to the lives of people living with rare diseases because they are so different from ours,” she added.

Sam said her $500 grant will help her make the customer experience at Harvest on Vine—her local food pantry in Charlestown—and other Boston-area food pantries easier and more efficient. Many food pantry customers are old or have kids with them and struggle to carry heavy bags containing a month’s supply of food, Sam said. The Keegan grant will replace pantry shopping bags with push carts, she said, which will hopefully quicken the lines and customers’ commute home. Her plan is to work with her local Ace Hardware to buy the carts in bulk for a discounted price. 

Sam has been involved with Harvest on Vine since she was four, when she began volunteering at the then newly opened pantry with her mother. At the time, around 40 families relied on the resource, but since then it has grown to serve over 800 families. Sam and her mother still volunteer monthly at the pantry, handing out food and making sure everyone finds what they need. The customers form a line and walk through tables of food, requesting the ingredients they have in mind for the next month of meals. 

“The way we run it is definitely not like a charity,” Sam said. “We try to make it more like they are going shopping and picking what they want.” 

Other aims of her project include educating the school community about the struggles faced by people reliant on food pantries and encouraging volunteerism at local pantries, she said. To that end, she plans to gather statistics and collect anecdotal data about how long people wait in lines for food, how people get home from the food pantry, how far their homes are from the pantry, and how much their full pantry bags weigh. First she will focus on her local food pantry, she said, before possibly expanding to others nearby. To spread her findings, Sam said, she hopes to publish a report in the school blog or in The Vanguard. 

“Volunteering at my food pantry has given me the opportunity to meet so many new people, and it has been such a positive experience for me,” Sam said. “I want others to be able to feel that same sense of community within their towns and cities.”

Director of College Counseling Amy Selinger, who was Marina’s former advisor and college counselor, said she also sees the fellowship as an opportunity to create a growing community based on Marina’s values.

“To the committee, and to me, it’s almost like we’ve planted little seeds everywhere. Even someone who gets denied, just having them think about the project is a seed, and we may not see that seed come into its own until eight years from now,” Ms. Selinger said. “The fellowship is keeping [Marina’s] sense of social justice alive, her sense that you can have a positive impact on the world, and providing that hope to the rest of the school.”

The fellowship awards grants annually to sophomores or juniors who submit a two-page proposal with a project description and an estimated budget between $500 and $2500. Joining Ms. McNamara and Ms. Selinger, Drama Teacher Mark Lindberg, Math Teacher Tom Randall, English Teacher Ariel Duddy, Marina’s friend Luke Vargas ’08, and Marina’s parents all review applications as part of the selection committee. Submissions are due in early February, and winners are notified the week before March break.

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