Giving Back: Tracy Bellum is Making a Difference on Cleveland’s East Side
Community efforts of Tri-C student rewarded with Newman Fellowship
Sometimes life has to take some left turns for you to end up in the right situation.
That was the case for Tracy Bellum, a second-year early childhood education student at Cuyahoga Community College. In early March, Bellum was among 268 college students nationwide to be awarded a Newman Civic Fellowship for the 2018-2019 school year. The fellowship provides educational opportunities for students who are active in their communities.
But the path Bellum followed to become a Newman Fellow has been anything but a straight line.
A native of northeastern Pennsylvania, she never planned on moving to Ohio, working for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District or enrolling at Tri-C. But she met someone while a student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and things changed.
“My significant other was diagnosed with glaucoma and, on top of that, I have epilepsy,” Bellum said. “His family lives here, and with both of us having medical conditions, available services and public transportation became important considerations when deciding where to live.”
The couple moved to Cleveland in 2002. A few years later, she took a job as a special education teacher’s assistant with Cleveland public schools. Working at Andrew J. Rickoff Elementary School in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, she discovered that there were opportunities to make a difference in the lives of the school’s students and in the community — opportunities that extended well beyond the classroom.
“Community involvement is something that has always been a part of me,” Bellum said. “My mother and my grandparents told me from an early age: if you are able to help someone, do it. You might turn their day around through even a simple act of kindness.”
It’s a lesson she wanted to teach the students at Rickoff Elementary. She began organizing community projects to benefit students at the school, as well as elderly, disabled and underprivileged residents throughout the inner-city neighborhoods of Cleveland’s east side.
“I like to be resourceful, and many people don’t realize the number of resources and organizations that are out there to assist in the community,” Bellum said. “I started working on partnering my school with some of those organizations.”
Bellum worked with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to her school, providing students with access to nutrition that is less-available in underserved inner-city communities. But to her, the most rewarding projects are the ones that take students out of the classroom and show them how they can work to make a difference in their own neighborhoods.
“We work with Habitat for Humanity,” she said. “They show our students how they fix porches, mend fences, things like that. If you can do something like that for an older person who can’t do it for themselves anymore, you’re helping them — and you’re helping your community look better.”
The students also volunteer for spring and fall cleanup days at the homes of elderly and disabled residents.
“It’s funny, some of the students hear that they’re going to be doing yardwork, and they kind of grumble,” Bellum said. “But then they get to know the seniors they’re helping, and by the end of the day, they’ve made some new friends. It’s starts out as work, but it doesn’t feel that way when the day ends.”
Bellum found fulfillment in inspiring Rickoff Elementary’s students to serve their communities. But a final piece was still missing: a college education that would allow her to advance her career. That’s why she decided to enroll at Tri-C in 2016.
“I didn’t graduate from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and my life is obviously a lot different now compared to then,” she said. “I was at the right place in my life where it made sense to go back to school.”
Bellum has taken the same work ethic and resourcefulness that has served her well in organizing community projects and used it to become a successful student. She is a member of the Mandel Scholars Academy, on track to graduate with an associate degree in 2019, and hopes to study for a bachelor’s degree at Cleveland State University.
But even she didn’t see a Newman Fellowship coming.
Tri-C President Alex Johnson submitted a nomination letter to Campus Compact, the higher education nonprofit that administers the Newman Fellowships. On March 2, Bellum found out she had been chosen.
As a Newman Fellow, Bellum will have the opportunity to attend a variety of learning and networking events with other community-minded college students, including the Newman Civic Fellows National Conference.
“I was so surprised,” she said. “Out of all the people at Tri-C who do amazing things in the community, I was selected. It is a privilege and honor.”
Bellum credits the support she received from her professors at Tri-C for helping her earn the fellowship. She works full-time and carries a full-time class load, in addition to her Mandel responsibilities and community projects.
“If it hadn’t been for the support of the people at Tri-C, I don’t know if I’d be sitting here as a Newman Fellow right now,” she said. “Going back to school after 20 years, I didn’t know if I could balance it all — but my professors encouraged me to meet the challenge. I’ve felt genuine support here at Tri-C.”
March 28, 2018
Erik Cassano, 216-987-3577 or email@example.com