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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Results of Community Based Team Projects

Kelly and David

Students in my SPAN 232 course, "Spanish & Entrepreneurship: Languages, Cultures & Communities," have to do a team project in addition to their 28 hours of community service learning work. These are the results of one of the teams from Spring 2014. The intent is to have them go through the entrepreneurial process on a small scale, create something of true value, and develop their teamwork skills. --Ann Abbott

What?

For our project, we chose to write a grant proposal for the after-school program called SOAR that takes place at Garden Hills elementary school. The SOAR program is designed to help second language learners from low-income families in the Champaign Unit 4 school district improve reading, writing, and math skills. The program is coordinated by the University of Illinois Center for education in small urban communities in conjunction with the bilingual program at Garden Hills. Each semester, three days of the week, University service-learning and volunteer students travel to Garden Hills to work with an assigned student for 1-2 hours after school. The student volunteer/SOAR student pairs spend time reading in English and Spanish, working through math problems together, and playing educational games. The program has been successful in helping to close educational gaps and has received praise from tutors, bilingual coordinators, teachers, and families of the students. 

We looked at a few grants; based on the organization offering grants’date of submissions and which grants were aimed at awarding funds to social reform programs like SOAR, we decided to apply to the State Farm Youth Advisory Board (YAB) grant. The grant stated that they wished to allocate money to programs in multiple areas around the country with the purpose of encouraging elementary age kids to take leadership roles in service-learning programs in small urban communities. 

While SOAR’s current focus was not on the elementary-age kids as leaders in service-learning in the Champaign-Urbana area, instead being focused on the University students’ roles as tutors, David and I saw an opportunity to expand the SOAR program in ways that would include more than just reading and writing help. 

We realized that in order to meet the criteria put forth by the YAB, we would need to propose an expansion of the roles of both the University student volunteers and the SOAR students which would involve a) having BOTH parties engage more meaningfully in their community in order to expand their scope of awareness in the greater community; b) identify Latino leaders in the C-U area that could serve as role models for community leadership and participation, and; c) demonstrate clearly the opportunities available for pursuing higher education to the SOAR kids, and reinforce its value to the University student volunteers by expanding their relationship to one of mentorship in which they could work on community oriented service together, involving field trips to UIUC campus and other sites with clear strategic value. 

We knew that SOAR had received money from an organization called Orange Krush in the past, and this past year had received a small sum of money from a Social Work club on campus to help buy snacks. We were also aware, however, that SOAR could use more funds to buy healthy snacks for the kids since they stay after school and were in need of more Spanish kids’ books.

So what? 

We started by inquiring to SOAR’s project coordinator, Lila Moore, about how the funds could be used and how much money she thought would be necessary to help the program run more efficiently. We realized, as we began the application for the State Farm YAB grant, that the minimum amount allotted was $25,000-- much more than we had originally thought.We did not need that amount if we were just looking to supply SOAR with needed Spanish kids’ books and healthy snacks for the academic year.

However, we met with Lila in person, began brainstorming, and came to the conclusion that the $25,000 could actually allow us to be creative and really think about possible ways to expand the program and make it more meaningful for both the SOAR kids and the University student volunteers alike. With Lila’s help, we came up with a list of things that we saw as potential ways to expand SOAR, make it more efficient, and create a more engaging ongoing participatory dialogue with clear educational and societal value within the community. 

We realized that with more resources and manpower, there were ways to expand and revitalize the structure of SOAR that would incorporate a greater service-learning component on all levels. 

The needs that we identified were the following:
  1. Developer/coordinator paid internship position: a dedicated developer/coordinator for greater service-learning integration into the program, which would be a paid internship at least part of the time to assure dedicated hours, and whose primary task would be to change the tutor/student relationship, in which currently the SOAR kids are “passive”benefactors of learning assistance, to a mentor/service-learning partner relationship in which the SOAR kids are offered the opportunity to engage in community service-learning themselves. In short: greater integration ofservice-learning into the current SOAR mission. This would help build the next generation of community-minded adults, demonstrate and reinforce the value of higher education, and help narrow the marginalization factor so prevalent in immigrant communities. Academic learning would bebalanced with reflection on each participant’s relationship to the process of participating in the greater community. Example: Developer/coordinator plans service-learning activities/modules, integrates them into current structure, calls volunteers to briefings, fosters team culture, facilitates feedback sessions, works closely with Lila to ensure daily logistics of program are met. 
  2. Streamlined and secure transportation: primarily, this would save time for UIUC students--time that could be spent developing/experimenting/implementing new components/methodologies to the program via leadership/teamwork that are based on a service-learning approach. UIUC volunteers currently waste much time individually organizing their own transportation to Garden Hills, which is not located centrally. Increased time would facilitate planning sessions for volunteers while likewise engaging them in leadership skills development, also allowing for discussion about what is working, what isn’t in the service-learning component development, etc. Currently, the transportation budget for SOAR is contingent on funding that the bilingual program at Garden Hills is able to earmark. This is not secure and is reviewed year-by-year. A secured source of funds would additionally cover any potential shortfalls to keep the program running, and also offer possibilities for taking the kids and mentors on field trips to sites of clear service-learning value. Examples: a) Daily shuttle from campus to Garden Hills for UIUC volunteers and back on days the program runs. b) Field trip to UIUC waste/recycling facilities to see how waste management in the University community works. Students and mentors would also volunteer time towards a activity of managing waste and/or raising awareness about waste.
  3. Role models: introduce SOAR students to Latino role models that will inspire them, entertain them, and provide them with clear examples of how community engagement combined with education can leverage individuals into greater community involvement, thereby building greater communities.
  4. E-books (Kindle, etc.): While the SOAR kids currently have access to traditional books in print as well as computers to some degree, the importance of technological competence/awareness is key to mobilization and access for future generations.

Now what?

In its first several years SOAR has proven itself to be a program worthy of community support. The need that exists for greater integration, inclusion,and access for the first generation children of Latino immigrants in our community is greater than the program alone can currently meet. There is still much work to be done towards both ensuring that the SOAR program can continue to receive the necessary funding to meet the current budget and also continue to develop the program in ways that continue to make it successful and progressive. During our research and work on this team project, we have addresses some very important questions on what possibilities exist for making the program even better than it is. How can we attract investment in this project? Although we are confident that we’ve identified certain key needs, we learned that as students the scope of what ultimately can be done is beyond our reach. Sadly, we were unable to complete the application for the State Farm YAB grant by the deadline on May 2nd, 2014. Perhaps if we had realized the scope of what soliciting a$25k grant involved in terms of research hours and writing earlier in the semester, we’d have had time to develop a team of people to help us with it. The State Farm YAB grant application alone required approximately 25k-30k words of focused text describing the proposal, its objectives, limitations, supporting research, etc. 

Despite our taking on this project due to being passionate about using the fundamental idea of social entrepreneurship to enact a change that we see as being extremely positive in our community, the sheer scope of it was beyond our reach within the time and resources that we ultimately used, which ultimately were 4 months, a good computer, a good internet connection, and our experiences thus far in the service-learning community. Although we were unable to apply for the grant this semester, we feel confident that the work that we have done in identifying key areas in which SOAR can benefit from increased and secure funding is a solid foundation for another group of social entrepreneurs to move forward with enacting a proposal. The work that we have done, if continued upon, can create a lasting value within the community and beyond. The proposal that we have outlined would serve to give greater agency to an entire demographic in the present and the future, enable young academics to prepare themselves for greater and fuller participation in social projects of varying scope due to their experience, and increase awareness of the ultimate value of service-learning pedagogy: the value being one that enacts positive change in communities by tackling problems that have no other solution.

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