During his more than 30-year career on the Hilltop, Dan Forbes ’81 has inspired, supported, and connected thousands of students with service opportunities through the Meelia Center for Community Engagement—helping make the college, New Hampshire, and the world a better place.

By Laura (Rossi) Lemire ’06

PHOTOS BY LEAH LARICCIA

 

Dan Forbes in front of alumni hall stairsIn the fall of 1989, after Hurricane Hugo tore up the South Carolina coastline with the highest tides ever recorded, a Saint Anselm student visited Dan Forbes ’81, director of the Volunteer Center, in the basement of the Cushing Center and implored: The college needed to “do something.”

Forbes agreed. Although the college’s new Volunteer Center (which would go on to become the Meelia Center for Community Engagement) had just opened that very morning, within a few hours Forbes and a group of students were planning the organization’s first volunteer event—cleaning local parks to raise money for the American Red Cross in support of those impacted by Hurricane Hugo.

Working with Manchester Parks and Recreation Department, the Volunteer Center had identified four to five parks to clean, with Forbes making screens to filter out the glass in the playground sand. For every 50 volunteers the college placed in city parks, members of the Manchester community would donate $1,000 to their cause. Volunteer numbers were staggering and, ultimately, the students raised $4,000.

Forbes learned two lessons from that first volunteer effort, which proved invaluable in managing and growing the Meelia Center for Community Engagement. “It communicated we have a responsive campus—that we had 200 students say, ‘Yes!’ and, two, a student voice was present,” says Forbes.

That student voice would become one of the driving forces of the college’s volunteer service efforts. “You don’t need to wait long for a student to come along with one of their ideas, which, of course, is one of my favorite things,” he says.

This passion for new ideas, helping others, listening to students, and putting it all together is why the Meelia Center for Community Engagement has become a staple of the Saint Anselm College student experience. While Forbes entered into semi-retirement this past spring, stepping down as the founding director of the Meelia Center, he leaves behind a legacy of service work and volunteerism that has become a signature Anselmian attribute.

 

Finding a Path, Filling a Need

It’s hard to imagine Saint Anselm without Dan Forbes, but his path to the Hilltop was not a direct one after high school. Instead, before deciding on a college, he held a variety of jobs, from working at a mill in Ashland, N.H., to becoming a sales trainee and then later a plumber’s helper. He even hitchhiked to southern California where he worked at a tree nursery. He jokes it was working for his father at a car dealership that finally drove him to enroll at Saint Anselm in 1978. He was 22.

Forbes majored in criminal justice, but he took as many sociology and psychology courses as possible, explaining he never saw himself in law enforcement, but was very interested in the corrections field. While in school, he worked three part-time jobs: at the county jail, in the state prison system, and at a group home.

“The longer I worked with adults, the more I realized I needed to get started earlier in the community,” says Forbes, who went on to support youth at the former Friends program in Concord after his graduation in 1981. “Which led me to youth-based programs in the community. Now you’re working with kids who had significant challenges.”

Forbes went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from Boston College. In 1985, a call from sociology Professor Michael Dupre ’66 led him back to the Hilltop as a full-time faculty member teaching social work courses. It was during those early years teaching that Forbes recognized the difficulty his students were having applying their classwork. “They needed more real-life situations to unpack the classroom material,” he says.

Having been introduced to a member of the Manchester Community Action Center, which is responsible for city volunteering, he realized partnering with city agencies could be the solution for his students.

Forbes met with Fr. Peter Guerin, O.S.B., then academic dean, and developed a four-part model that would become the parameters for the college’s service-learning program: It would be another form of learning, require a reflective component; needed to connect with the coursework; and be a small part of the overall grade.

Working with community partners in connection with his social work courses, Forbes sent his students into the Manchester community and found the experiences engaged his students in whole new ways.

“My students came back and had all these questions,” says Forbes. “They’re thinking on a totally different level, they were unpacking their own baggage, and saying, ‘I’m working with at-risk kids and I didn’t think they cared about school, but they really do care, and they are bright, but they’re just not making it in the way that the classroom is being delivered.’” This was exactly the “aha” moment Forbes had been hoping for.

And it was only the beginning: Having shared the positive results with his colleagues, several faculty members followed his lead—introducing service opportunities as part of their coursework as well.

Forbes believes Fr. Peter’s trust in him allowed the model to extend beyond his social work courses. “I had both tremendous support and freedom to create,” he says. “Back then there wasn’t a model or a template to follow; we were collectively creating the template and they [the college] were tremendously flexible in allowing me to be creative and to go forward.”

Since it began in 1987, service-learning has grown exponentially—33 years later, in the fall 2020 semester, the college connected 260 students in 20 courses across disciplines. Now, service-learning is generally recognized across higher education as an effective pedagogy. Sometimes an optional assignment, and sometimes built into the fabric of the course for all students, service-learning deepens the understanding of course material and builds student skills while generating significant positive community impact.

LEFT: Forbes stands with Kristen (Richardson) DeYoung ’96 at the Valentine’s Day Dance.

From the Archives

Forbes stands with Kristen (Richardson) DeYoung ’96 at the Valentine’s Day Dance.

Photos courtesy of Dan Forbes ’81

His Life's Work

Forbes had been teaching for four years when Fr. Peter asked him to split his time between teaching and the new center for volunteers. “I loved the work and they fit together nicely,” says Forbes.

Starting with just five community partners, Forbes opened the doors and immediately began to experience the full weight of student engagement. From the beginning, eager students came to the center with ideas for volunteer opportunities; they voiced their opinions, developed their own programs, and sought out new partnerships.

“The college was early in the process of community engagement, 1989 was really early—when I was director of the Volunteer Center at the time there were few positions like that,” he says. “And all I had to do was say to students, ‘We have this opportunity, what do you think?’ and they came in and took the opportunity or told me what they thought.”

In the early ’90s the work was growing; the need in the community and the desires of the students to serve was outpacing the center’s operations. Forbes needed help and, of course, it came in the form of student leadership, which he says changed everything.

“What a blessing to be at an institution where this is what I needed most [student leaders] and this is what students freely gave: their leadership,” Forbes says.

Alumna Elizabeth Condron ’04 was one of those student leaders. According to Condron, when she was a freshman she was homesick until Forbes reeled her into the Meelia Center where she volunteered at the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, formerly the Youth Development Center (YDC). The criminal justice major became the center’s student assistant director her junior and senior years.

“He totally changed my ability to believe in myself and in what I could do, and really helped shape my identity,” says Condron. “What I grew into was all because of Dan. He saw in me what I didn’t, he believed in me. It turned into my career trajectory.”

Condron is now the associate director of emergency shelters at the Pine Street Inn in Boston. She explains that Forbes, who is still a mentor and friend, helped her develop important leadership skills.

“Dan is an idea man and trusts others to execute,” she says. “As student leaders, that’s a big responsibility—so to have someone believe in you builds confidence.”

Sociology major Nicole Lora ’06 was in Forbes’ social work classes and also heavily involved in the Meelia Center as a student, holding the student assistant director position her senior year.

“I feel like I left here not only with an intellectual understanding of the core principles and beliefs of my profession but how to live them out and put them into practice and to continue to grow in them,” Lora says. “I had this skill and capacity to reflect on them, that a mentor, Dan, helped me create.”

In May 2020, Lora was named the new director of the Meelia Center following seven years as the center’s assistant director. “I am one of many in a lot of ways,” says Lora of the alumni who looked at Forbes as a mentor, social worker, fatherly figure, and friend. “It feels like an honor to be taking over Dan’s life work.”

“Thousands of lives have been changed for the better because he has shown us that individuals can be a force for good and that, as members of the community... We can lift each other up.”

— Mark Cronin, Ph.D.,
     Dean of the College

It’s hard not to form lasting friendships while working at the Meelia Center. From left, Tyler Lindsay ’16, Raquel Johnson ’16, Nancy Nguyen ’16, and Forbes.

From the Archives

It’s hard not to form lasting friendships while working at the Meelia Center. From left, Tyler Lindsay ’16, Raquel Johnson ’16, Nancy Nguyen ’16, and Forbes.

Photos courtesy of Dan Forbes ’81

 

The Meelia Center Becomes a Community Pillar

Forbes says there is one other event in the history of the center that changed its outcome and continues to make a significant difference in the center’s impact: the philanthropy of alumnus Rich Meelia ’71 in 2000.

“The ultimate game changer was Rich Meelia. He believed in us right away and that changed everything. Now we have the resources available and it continues to this day,” says Forbes.

In 1992, the center had 12 student employees but with Meelia’s support it continued to grow. Now it employs 63 student leaders, who manage more than 50 community partnerships including Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Easterseals, and Manchester’s VA Hospital. The students plan monthly programs like Foster Parent’s Night Out (FPNO) and annual Anselmian traditions like the Children’s Holiday Festival, Valentine’s Day Dance, and Dance-a-thon.

Through Forbes’ latest brainchild, Access Academy, an after-school academic program, Saint Anselm students teach and support underrepresented Manchester high school students in courses ranging from Intro to Web Design to Environmental Science to Youth Activism. More than 150 high school students earn academic credit through the academy each year.

Hundreds of students volunteer through the Meelia Center every year, meaning thousands of students have become connected with volunteering through the Meelia Center during Forbes’ tenure—which is much more than the current population of Forbes’ beloved town of Barrington, N.H., where he and his family reside.

“It would be difficult to overestimate the profound impact the Meelia Center has had on Saint Anselm students, faculty and staff, and the surrounding community,” says Dean of the College Mark Cronin, Ph.D. “Thousands of lives have been changed for the better because he has shown us—through his leadership and his good works—that individuals can be a force for good and that, as members of the community that surrounds us, we can lift each other up. Indeed, it is our responsibility to do so.”

Rich Meelia continues to support the center because of the impressive work it accomplishes. “Dan is just from another planet with the ideas he thinks about to have an impact on the Manchester community,” says Meelia.

Forbes admits he’s “kind of a big dreamer,” so it comes as no surprise that his expectations would be big and the impact of his work would be monumental.

From left, Maggie O’Connor ’19, Luke Testa ’19, Nicole Lora ’06, Forbes, Maggie Walker ’17, and Cara Onyski ’19.

From the Archives

The Meelia Center’s Valentine’s Day Dance has become an Anselmian tradition. From left, Maggie O’Connor ’19, Luke Testa ’19, Nicole Lora ’06, Forbes, Maggie Walker ’17, and Cara Onyski ’19.

Photo courtesy of Dan Forbes ’81

 

The Next Chapter

Of course, Forbes would never retire outright—there is too much work still to do. Instead, he is working part-time as Meelia’s coordinator for program development managing two programs: the Remote Learning Collaborative, an initiative in partnership with the Manchester School District to support the city’s students through tutoring, and a program with the Manchester Housing Authority’s family units at Elmwood Gardens and Kelley Falls.

Lora says program development is one of the things he does best because he recognizes the need. She cites Access Academy as a perfect example, where Forbes went to Manchester’s ethnic communities first so that the program was crafted based on their priorities.

“That’s the thing about Dan,” says Lora. “He has this unique skill set, the ability to see this is something positive, even though he’s not part of the community that would be directly impacted—instead of telling the community that’s what they need, he works with them.”

Working from home during the pandemic has given Forbes the opportunity to spend more time with his family and grandchildren. He is still working directly with a few students but admits he does miss being on campus, working with his colleagues, and seeing all the student volunteers coming and going through the center.

His dream for the Meelia Center is for it to continue to mature even as he acknowledges how far it has come. He sees how in recent years the center is having deeper, more meaningful conversations with students about their community engagement. It also has developed an Impact Fellows program for multicultural students to have more leadership positions. He hopes the Meelia Center will continue on the path toward community problem-solving bridging the gap between classroom lessons and real-world change, and providing opportunities for faculty and student research and scholarship within the community.

Either way, he believes the center is in very good hands with Lora. “In order to stay at the forefront of campus-community engagement, the center needed to constantly challenge itself, and grow to meet the times,” Forbes says. “Nickie’s work at Meelia for the past seven years convinced me she has the knowledge, skills, and energy to meet that challenge, and that I could play a support role as needed.”

Forbes is often called an “idea man” and “a visionary” by his former students, alumni, and colleagues. Yet, he still does not hesitate to roll up his sleeves and do the work. Thirty-six years at Saint Anselm College is proof of the mark he’s left. Led by his social work values and beliefs, he has impacted the lives of innumerable individuals.

“[Dan] is so humble,” says Lora. He doesn’t take the time to acknowledge his role in this beautiful story. When he tells a story, he plays down his role or leaves it out when he is one of the main characters.”

Dean Cronin relays, “The Rule of St. Benedict instructs us, ‘All guests … are to be welcomed as Christ, Chapter 53.’ This Benedictine notion of hospitality, service to others, and the fundamental recognition of the value and humanity of every individual is embodied in the person of Dan Forbes. He reminds us that we all have a best self that we can aspire to.”


Don't Be Afraid to be Amazing

dan forbesDuring a virtual retirement celebration held last spring, Elizabeth Condron ’04 shared this toast—expertly summarizing the impressive career of Dan Forbes ’81.

  • 36 years
  • 1 career
  • An estimated 600 student volunteers annually; more than 21,000 student volunteers during his tenure at Saint Anselm
  • Millions of bedbugs eliminated in the greater Manchester area
  • 25 Whiffle ball tournaments
  • 150 high school students earning academic credits each year through Access Academy
  • 3 pickup trucks used to move donations
  • 28 Valentine’s Day Dances
  • One Dan Forbes who has passion that is infectious. His service to others is indescribable. His belief in young leaders is palpable, and his conviction that the world can be a better place is inspirational.

 

Dan Forbes, a mentor, leader, professor, and family man. To Dan on your retirement, we leave you with your famous words: Don’t be afraid to be amazing.