WILLIMANTIC — The leaks in the parish hall started off small. But eventually, they had to use kiddy pools to catch water inside St. Paul's Episcopal Church whenever it rained. Time for a new roof.
The money was available. But the church needed help ripping the ceiling down. It was a suspended ceiling, and 10 years of water had been dripping through it.
"It got wet, then dried out and molded," said Paul Doyle, the director of the Covenant Soup Kitchen housed below the church. "There was insulation underneath there stuck together. It was nasty."
Doyle knew exactly who to call. The Eastern Connecticut State University rugby club.
"These guys demo-ed that room upstairs without thinking twice about it," he said. "And they did it in about 20 minutes. Filled the dumpster. These guys will do anything."
Help someone move out of a flea- and cockroach-infested apartment into senior housing? The cockroaches were just about carrying off the microwave and the fridge. The rugby guys didn't blink. Clean out years of accumulated stuff in the attic and basement of the old parish house? Let them at it.
"These guys went to town," Doyle said. "Opened the attic windows, they were throwing things down to one another, into the dumpsters … and they did it all in about 30 minutes.
"It would have taken the rest of us hours to do this and we would have been beside ourselves with spider webs and dirt and they thought nothing of it."
No job is too big, too messy, too taxing. They're a rugby team. An elderly couple needed to be shoveled out of their house last winter during the big snowstorm. Assistant coach Ray Aramini, who is on the board of directors at the soup kitchen, sent out a few rugby guys. Thirty inches of snow was cleared in a few hours.
"Day in and day out, they are in the community," Eastern Connecticut President Elsa Nunez said. "Everybody knows the rugby team.
"They are my poster child. I would love every team to do what they are doing. They all do a lot; but no one does it better than the rugby team."
When Nunez arrived at Eastern, there was a community service requirement. She abolished it. Too many kids were waiting until the last minute and inundating community organizations with calls, simply to fulfill the requirement.
"It was meaningless, something to get off your list," Nunez said. "Now I have more people participating in community service."
And the rugby team is in the lead. Recently they showed up for their main fall volunteer session at the soup kitchen, which is right down the hill from the university. Their cars — bearing bumper stickers that read "Be Kind to Animals, Kiss a Rugby Player" — lined the narrow one-way street beside the stone church. They were landscaping — mulching, putting down crushed stone. A group was cleaning out the janitor's closet (a job nobody ever wants to do). Some were making dinner.
"It's nice to get a different perspective of what goes on in Willimantic," said senior Kyle Steger of Stratford. "As college students, you might not see everything that goes on. A lot of people are oblivious to what goes on. Bringing us here just gets you back down to earth. It feels good. It always feels good."
They all have nicknames. "Hey, Bone, how's the foot?" Aramini asked one player. "You're limping a little less." And, "Burlap, nice to see you," to another who just showed up. "Go find Paul Doyle."
Steve-O (Steve Pace), Steve-O No. 2 (Steve Tartsinis), Fruit Punch (Emmanuel Broi), Gravy (Kyle Wells) and Pumpkin (Carlos Ramirez) were in the kitchen, helping volunteer Cathy Greene make salads, pasta, chicken and rice for dinner.
"They're a blast," said Greene, of Hampton, who has been helping at the soup kitchen for over two years. "They have a lot of energy — 'they're like, 'Keep us busy, keep us busy' — it's different from when we have Girl Scouts or other groups in here.
"We use [their energy]. This is probably the biggest group. RHAM basketball and baseball has come in. They're kind of big. But these guys are big in size and big in numbers."
Aramini, who is a retired juvenile probation officer, keeps them on track and tells them where to go. They work year-round. They pick up garbage in Willimantic and help the freshmen on move-in day. They've planted trees at a farm in Ashford and built a garden at Natchaug Hospital in Mansfield.
Sometimes they just help on their own.
"I got a call from a teacher at Windham High — 'I don't know who it was, but one of your players stopped and changed my tire and left before I could thank them,'" Aramini said.
"He's taken a lot of guys who are not really connected, kids who are not in a club, people who might have issues with their family," Nunez said. "He goes after them and they go after each other. The team becomes their family. They're good men. Ray does a great job with them. They have a culture of helping."
After they graduate, they'll call and talk to Ray or head coach Joe Pardee, who are both volunteers. How's the soup kitchen? they want to know. One former player called Aramini recently to tell him that he got it. "I get what you guys were doing," he told Aramini. "It had nothing to do with rugby."
Oh, right, there's rugby, too. Eastern, which has only lost two regular season games in the last two years, beat Wesleyan 20-6 in the first game of the season Saturday. But this is about way more than just a sport.
"We, as a society, are judged by how we take care of those who can't take care of themselves and I think, by and large, we fail," Aramini said. "But we have a pocket of young, exceptional men who have decided to change that. That's them. I'm along for the ride. It's great to be able to see. I'm nothing shy of blessed."
For more information on the team or to make a donation to the team, email email@example.com.