As part of new course, students help out at Richmond after-school programs, food pantries and more

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Once a week during the past semester, Virginia Commonwealth University student Kirk Leppert would set up a table outside a barber shop in Richmond's Jackson Ward neighborhood and offer fresh produce from Shalom Farms, a nonprofit organization that aims to fight hunger in the city's food deserts.

"I was bringing fresh produce to a part of town where they don't have easy access to fresh produce. The closest grocery store is the Kroger, which is all the way down Broad," said Leppert, a junior English major in the College of Humanities and Sciences. "It made me feel like I made a little impact in the Richmond community."

Leppert's work providing free produce in Jackson Ward was part of a larger volunteer effort this semester in which he helped out at Ram Pantry, VCU's student food pantry. "I'm really thankful I've been able to help with the VCU Ram Pantry and that it gave me the feeling of helping out my fellow Rams and local community," he said.

Leppert is one of 49 students who participated in a newly designated service-learning course, Social Work 200: Building a Just Society, in the School of Social Work. As part of the course, which is geared toward non-social work majors, the students were assigned to volunteer with nonprofit organizations at VCU and in the Richmond community.

"This course encourages students to examine social justice concepts through a local context," said Allison K. Ryals, an assistant professor in teaching who is leading the course. "Oftentimes, it can be a student's first experience of looking at social justice from an academic perspective. It takes the students out of the classroom and into organizations here in Richmond."

Lynn Pelco, Ph.D., associate vice provost for community engagement at VCU, said increasing the number of students enrolled in service-learning courses such as Ryals' class is a top university goal.

"As a general education class, SLWK 200 gives students from all majors the opportunity early in their university careers to learn about the communities surrounding our campus and to begin what we hope will be a long-term volunteering relationship in our local Richmond communities," she said.

In addition to Ram Pantry, a number of students volunteered with the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Richmond. The students helped out with after-school programs, assisting with special events and more, said Kodi Fleming, director of the organization's MLK Jr. Middle School Club in Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.

"[The service-learning students] have worked in various capacities around the club from homework help, assisting with serving kids snacks and dinners, doing sports and recreation activities," he said. "Without having the service-learning volunteers it would make it extremely hard to operate in the capacity that we do. They are really instrumental in our daily operations and the kids really have taken to many of the volunteers as big brothers and sisters."

Other students, such as Veronica Sung, a senior graphic design student in the School of the Arts, were assigned to work with Lobs and Lessons, a youth enrichment program at the Mary and Frances Youth Center at VCU that teaches life skills, promotes academics and creates a path to higher education through the sport of tennis.

Sung worked as a special event assistant for the organization, generating ideas and designing promotional materials for Lobs and Lights, a nighttime glow-in-the-dark event in October.

"I was glad that I was able to put my dedication into something that is related to the field I’m pursuing," Sung said. "The best part of my service-learning was that I was rewarded for the effort I put behind the event. Seeing people having a good time with their people based on what we, the team, created made me feel great."

Several other students volunteered at the Neighborhood Resource Center of Greater Fulton, which provides a sliding-scale Montessori Preschool, financial and employment coaching for adults, an after-school program for children, and fitness and GED classes for adults.

The service-learning students helped out with the organization's job support lab, front office, afterschool programs and community garden, said after-school programs director Jenny Rockwell. She said several VCU service-learning classes, such as the new social work course, have provided invaluable help.

"Service-learning students are a huge help to our organization as we are a small nonprofit with only a handful of employees on staff," she said. "We rely on help from students and volunteers to serve the high volume of community members we see each day."

The extra volunteers were especially helpful with afterschool programs, Rockwell added, as the Neighborhood Resource Center serves an average of 25 children per day and more helpers ensured a better adult-to-child ratio, making for a safer and more productive environment.

"Throughout the semester, students form relationships with the kids here, and by the end they are often greeted with enthusiastic hugs from children," she said. "Several of our service-learning students have continued to volunteer beyond their required hours for the class, recognizing the value of their work here and looking to continue building positive and supportive relationships with youth who attend."

We talk about oppression, how prejudice and discrimination manifest in the environment, concepts of privilege and power. ... And we talk about how, as an individual, they can pull all these pieces together and work to make change.

By helping out at local nonprofit organizations, Pelco said, the students were not only benefiting the community, but also gaining valuable experience that can lead to later success in college and beyond.

"For example," Pelco said, "we know from research that VCU students who take service-learning classes are more likely to graduate than students who don't. Also, seniors who have taken a VCU service-learning class report higher levels of academic engagement during their time at VCU than do seniors who did not take service-learning."

Additionally, the students in Social Work 200: Building a Just Society learned inside the classroom what it takes to build community and work toward a more just society, Ryals said.

"We talk about oppression, how prejudice and discrimination manifest in the environment, concepts of privilege and power. Toward the end of the semester, we shift our focus to what's happening in the Richmond area — focusing on poverty and economic disparity," she said. "And we talk about how, as an individual, they can pull all these pieces together and work to make change."


Feature image at top: Crystal Rawls, junior in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, and Kirk Leppert, junior English major, stock canned goods at Ram Pantry, VCU's student food pantry.


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