WPI students are known for making a positive difference in the world through their academic project work. Often those projects take them far from campus to work with communities and organizations in other parts of the world. Just as often our students are making a positive impact right in Worcester and nearby communities. Through the Worcester Community Project Center, Lydia Ellen Tonani ’23 did just that. Tonani and her team members developed long-term sustainable plans for a Thrive Food Pantry in Worcester that will fight food insecurity and assist the autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability, and developmental disability population in the region.

Thrive Support & Advocacy, founded in Marlborough, Mass., during the 1970s, is a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering, advocating for, and assisting youth and adults with autism spectrum disorders, developmental disabilities, and intellectual disabilities. Thrive’s mission is to help their constituents and their families not only survive but thrive regardless of their surrounding circumstances.

To develop effective, sustainable plans for the Thrive Food Pantry, Tonani and team focused on four primary objectives: utilizing demographical data on the population that the project is assisting to assess their nutritional and accessibility needs; connecting with nearby food pantries to better understand effective operating procedures; developing precise space and inventory plans, staffing schedules, blueprints, and other deliverables for the food pantry while considering the sponsor’s available space and budget; creating partnerships with campuses, markets, and other organizations for the food pantry to continue functioning after the project’s completion.

The grand opening of the pantry, Flourish at Thrive, gave Tonani the opportunity to reflect on her experience and her role in helping to make this resource a reality for the community.

Q: When Thrive opened to the community in October, how did that make you feel?

A: I was overjoyed when I arrived at the opening of “Flourish at Thrive." I genuinely couldn't stop smiling throughout the event's duration. Seeing all the details that we worked on regarding the location’s structure and community outreach gave me a sense of accomplishment knowing that I had the opportunity to use my knowledge and practical skills to help the Worcester community. It was a truly amazing experience for my teammates and I to see our work come to fruition, from the use of stainless-steel shelving to the pantry’s clients having the options of food pick-up and food selection to preserve their dignity in times of hardship and give them the opportunity to choose their households’ food.

Q: What impact do you hope Thrive will have on the community?

A: I hope to see Thrive’s work diminish the food insecurity faced by the Worcester community, especially among families with members living with autism spectrum disorders, developmental disabilities, and intellectual disabilities. I also look forward to seeing the inclusion and togetherness promoted in Thrive’s community outreach programs spreading throughout the area and empowering individuals to live fulfilling lives and thrive wherever they may be.

Q: What did you learn from this experience?

A: After completing the Interactive Qualifying Project and watching the project’s plans leave the reports and spreadsheets and come to life, I can say that I learned a lot about the city of Worcester and its inhabitants not only from a statistical standpoint but also on a personal level. Interviewing soup kitchens, food pantries, and other community organizations allowed me to experience a sense of togetherness and comprehension that I didn't experience earlier due to the pandemic. This experience also taught me more about effective teamwork and that, if you keep an open mind and decide to put your technical knowledge and individual experiences together, you can make a positive impact in your community and create a better environment for social, professional, and academic progress.

Q: You’ve spoken very sincerely about the donors who’ve helped support your WPI education. Would you like to share anything with them now that Thrive, an initiative you helped bring to fruition, is now open and impacting the Worcester community?

A: Once again, I would like to say a big "thank you" to the donors who have helped me during my academic career at WPI. It's with immense gratitude that I recognize that I wouldn't have been able to reach where I am today if it weren't for your support. However, your support to students pursuing their academic passions doesn't just impact one single person. Your support impacts the communities where these students apply what they learned, the workforce these students will join upon graduation, and the scientific community these students will contribute to with their work. So, once again, I would like to thank you for helping me and the next generation of minds to benefit our communities through our knowledge and unique life experiences. Thank you.