Project Serve pays off for students and community organizations

Annual volunteer day provides hands-on experience and helps build philanthropic habits


Faculty of ALES students fanned out across the city on a Saturday morning in mid-September, volunteering their time for such tasks as composting plant waste at a community garden and packing food hampers at Edmonton’s Food Bank.

Yet simple as their assignments were, the payoff was profound, both for the nine community organizations they assisted and the students who participated in Project Serve, an annual community-service learning event organized by the Faculty.

“We prepare 50,000 boxes (of food) a month,” said Mark Doran, director of operations for the Food Bank. “There’s no way we could do that with a staff of 40.”

Some Saturdays the Food Bank has as few as four drop-in volunteers, so the large group of energetic helpers ALES provided ensured that the following week its clients wouldn’t be stuck with an interminable wait for groceries, adding to their other challenges.

For the students at this destination, it was an eye-opening experience to see not only how a city tackles food insecurity in its community, but how their studies are applied in real-life situations.

 “In my classes we hear a lot about food safety,” said Eve Arbour-Neagoe, a first-year Animal Health student.

“So seeing how people who don’t have the opportunity to have fresh food, how they’re giving them food that’s preserved and safe, it’s interesting how it’s set up in a system that efficient and really working.”

Lauren Jewkes, a first year Nutrition and Food Science student from Red Deer, also appreciated how the day introduced her to an important institution in her new community.

This is the fifth year for Project Serve, which was conceived to connect incoming students to community service relevant to their fields of study so that they could get hands-on learning soon after starting university.

But the program attracts more senior students each year, because it offers so much more, including opportunities to build friendships among students from different Faculty departments and to forge a habit of philanthropy early in their lives.

“We want to give you a great education, but we also want you to become great citizens,” said ALES Dean Stan Blade as a record number of 130 participants fuelled up with coffee and muffins before deploying.

By not rolling over and going back to sleep on what started out as a cold, rainy morning, the students gave a ringing endorsement of the university’s new strategic institutional plan, For the Public Good, said the dean.

At Prairie Urban Farm, the students provided subtler but every bit as important support for public good.

The farm, which donates considerable produce to local food banks, also demonstrates to visitors and volunteers how an abundance of food can be grown in an urban small-space environment, said Nicole Martin, who volunteers as its garden leader. So ALES students not only weeded and composted, they built the farm’s second raised garden bed from recycled wood.

“There’s no budget for temporary or permanent staff,” said Martin. “Without their help it wouldn’t have been built this fall.”

Although Brittany Brezinski, a first-year Environmental and Conservation Sciences student wasn’t among those who were also learning how to use a power drill for the first time as the bed was built, she said there’s no substitute for the experience of actually handling plants she’s read about in textbooks.

“Pulling out the big hops plant (for composting) I was amazed at how big the roots are. That was new to me.”

In addition to the Food Bank and Prairie Urban Farm, the students assisted at Edmonton Reuse Centre, Ronald McDonald House, Whitemud Equine Learning Centre Association, Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Edmonton, YESS: Youth Empowerment and Support Services, and at Edmonton Organic Growers Guild and Green & Gold Garden.