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Through the CCG, Wingate students help others to help themselves
Chuck Gordon

At Wingate Baptist Church in mid-November 2019, in a reception hall chilled by unseasonably cold temperatures, Dr. Candace Lapan warmed up the crowd with an idea that had been percolating at Wingate University for some time. She was there on behalf of the Collaborative for the Common Good, a new initiative whose goal is to connect the campus and the community while helping students learn in a real-world setting. Lapan was selling a group of administrators from assisted-living facilities, nursing homes, hospitals and senior-focused agencies on the idea of using Wingate students to do some of their work for them.

It’s called “service learning,” Lapan explained, and it’s one of those mutually beneficial programs that universities should be doing. Students absorb the typical classroom lectures but then take what they’ve learned out of the classroom to apply it in a real-world setting. It’s a cousin to the buzzword du jour in higher education, “experiential learning,” but with a twist that especially fits Wingate’s mission: The experiential, or “hands-on,” part has a defined community-improvement aspect. It fits neatly with the University’s motto: Faith, Knowledge, Service.

“That’s one thing we’re trying to do: to motivate students and make them more engaged in our courses,” said Lapan, a Wingate psychology professor. “But at the same time we also want to improve our local community.”

The administrators watching Lapan’s presentation wanted to know more.

“I love it,” said Natalie Tunney, with the Centrolina Area Agency on Aging. “It’s right up my alley.”

Students study maps at Southern 8ths Farm

Students take part in orienteering, shelter-building, arrowhead-collecting and other activities during leadership retreats at Southern 8ths Farm in Chesterfield, S.C.

 

Students in Lapan’s Psychology of Aging class and their counterparts in Dr. Lacey Ritter’s Sociology of Aging class worked hard in the first couple of months of the year to put their learning into action in order to serve some of the agencies present last November.

And then Covid-19 hit. Midway through the process of creating a “senior prom” for a local nursing home, Ritter’s students had to pack up and leave campus, along with nearly all other Wingate students. But although they departed for their hometowns and didn’t get to return to the retirement home, they never stopped working. Communicating with residents remotely, the students continued to plan as if they would still be able to throw a fun party for the senior citizens. They then handed over all of their prep work to the management of the retirement home.

“They didn’t implement the program. There was no senior prom that they held,” says Dr. Catherine Wright, director of the Collaborative for the Common Good. “But the retirement home now has a package of how to do it when we can do it again. Or they can take that package and do it themselves.”

Because of Covid-19, the Collaborative, or CCG, has had to be more agile than Wright had originally expected. An initiative that coordinates the donation of supplies to teachers at schools in lower-income areas changed the way it delivered its donations to minimize crowds. Health fairs went from in-person information sessions and screenings to a series of wellness videos.

That’s one of the big things about serving: When you’re serving people, you’re changing their lives, but your life is being changed too.

The CCG has veered slightly away from where it thought it was headed at the beginning of the year, but it hasn’t strayed from its mission. It aims to use the resources at Wingate University’s disposal to help better the community – all while improving students’ ability to learn.

Some of the projects, such as the community garden and the teacher-supply effort Chalk it Up to Love, are volunteer-based and have a tangible, immediate impact. Others, such as economic-impact and energy-use studies, involve student research designed to spur changes that will improve the community down the road.

In the spring, the actions taken by local governments to limit the spread of Covid-19 created a confluence of immediate need and planning for the future that was right in the CCG’s wheelhouse. Executives with the Union County government asked Wright for information about food pantries in the county. Wright pointed them to an online food-system map developed by Rivendell Farms of the Carolinas that three Wingate students, serving as CCG interns, happened to be translating into Spanish.

Wright’s conversations with Union County officials then turned to future crises, and the idea of a Union County food council was born. Under the auspices of the CCG, Wingate sponsors an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer each year. Last year’s VISTA member, Sarah Busby, started developing a food-council survey, and her successor, Hannah Fraser, has analyzed the data and started creating the infrastructure to develop the council, including writing a grant proposal.

“It looks like we’re going to get the grant, and so she’s going to help design a website that will host all of this information,” Wright says. “So, if there’s another Covid down the road, or a hurricane or any crisis, we will have all of the resources and have these connections already put into place and all the data will be available for people.”

Wright says that all the connections the CCG has made with community nonprofits, churches and schools during the past couple of years is paying off. When the CCG sponsors a mobile health bus to set up shop in a local parking lot or organizes a health fair at a local school, it builds trust. “We’ve got some street cred,” Wright says.

Consider what follows to be a primer on the CCG and the various initiatives it has produced – so far.

Chalk it Up to Love East

Public elementary, middle and high schools in any one school system get money from the same budget, but the funds at teachers’ disposal vary widely. In more-affluent areas, parent-teacher organizations keep teachers stocked with all the supplies they could ever need. In poorer districts, a lot of the burden falls on teachers.

Aysha Marshall ’17, ’19 (M.Ed.), an exceptional-children’s teacher at Wingate Elementary, has had to dip into her own pocket over the years to pay for supplies, such as tissues and wipes. At Christmas, she says, she spends up to $200 to buy her students presents. “I do that just because I love what I do and I love my kids,” she says.

Teachers looking at free books

Teachers from five local schools can shop for free books when they come pick up their supplies at Wingate Baptist Church.

 

Chalk it Up to Love East, run by Wingate sophomore Isabella Walle, aims to provide some relief to teachers at five schools in eastern Union County, providing them with notebooks, wipes, dry-erase markers, paper towels and just about anything else they might need for a classroom.

Walle was drafted in to run the upstart project even before she’d started classes at Wingate, back in the summer of 2019. Her mother, Ginger Walle, is the director of the nonprofit Heart for Monroe, and it didn’t take much to persuade Isabella to follow in her mother’s footsteps. “It’s like the family business,” she says.

Under Walle, Chalk it Up is a well-oiled machine. Teachers go online to request particular items they need, and Walle and other volunteers collect donations from local churches and then bag them. Once a month, teachers can pick up their orders from Wingate Baptist Church’s reception hall, where they can also find a selection of books and other items that are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

During the pandemic, Chalk it Up volunteers have changed things up, taking the orders to the schools rather than have teachers pick them up. But the concept is the same, and in true CCG fashion, Walle continues to get as much out of the process as she puts into it.

“That’s one of the big things about serving: When you’re serving people, you’re changing their lives, but your life is being changed too,” Walle says. “It makes you so appreciative of the things that you have. And it’s so eye-opening. Once you go there, you’ve got to be careful, because you can’t come back from that. You just get infected.”

Rivendell Farms food-system map

In February, Brandy Fuentes-Delgado, now a junior at Wingate, found herself in the midst of what she describes as one of the best experiences she’s had at Wingate. She, Axel Velazquez and Douglas Peralta translated an emergency Covid-19 food-access resource map into Spanish. 

Already working as a research assistant for Lapan, earlier this academic year Fuentes-Delgado jumped at the chance to intern with the CCG, which had recently begun partnering with Rivendell Farms of the Carolinas. Rivendell, a self-described “nonprofit farm and good-food-advocacy and field-study organization,” is among a group of organizations that has put together a comprehensive food-system map of the Charlotte area to help farms, food retailers, farm-to-table restaurants, food banks and other food-related organizations connect with one another and with the general public.

When Covid-19 hit, organizers decided to fast-forward their plans and quickly produce a map of any and all food resources, even temporary meal-delivery stations, to help combat food insecurity. The result – an interactive online map that users can tailor to meet their needs by turning on and off filters and clicking on lighted points to locate resources – worked great for English speakers but did little to help those who speak Spanish.

Enter that trio of eager Wingate students.

“Providing bilingual information is critical to making food even more accessible during this time,” says Erin Hostetler, who coordinates the program for Rivendell. “Without a dedicated team of translators, there is no way our nonprofit would be able to complete this work.”

The Spanish-language version of the map can now be found at Rivendellcarolinas.org.

ALIEN

Part of giving back to the community is helping people develop the skills needed to lead the community in the future.

One CCG initiative, ALIEN (Adventure Leadership Immersive Experience in Nature), does that on Southern 8ths, a 1,350-acre farm in Chesterfield, S.C. There, University student groups can give disadvantaged kids their first taste of nature or learn conservation and survival skills for themselves.

Students build a temporary shelter

Late last year, a group of Wingate students from a variety of backgrounds – a couple of athletes, an Army veteran, a pre-pharmacy major, the president and vice president of the Wildlife Club – came to Southern 8ths on a chilly November day to learn and work together. They hunted for arrowheads, learned orienteering and built shelters in the woods. More University groups came out this fall.

“The real hope is to take groups of students out here on a regular basis to get them experience in nature and natural environments while developing character and leadership and those sorts of things,” says Nick DeLangie ’06, ’08 (M.Ed.), strategic leader for enrollment management at Wingate and one of the organizers of the retreats.

After owning and living on the farm for the past 13 years, Brad Turley certainly understands the value of nature.

“Nature delimits people,” he said. “We all have our own limits. We have our own identification of who we are, what we are. I’m a jock, I’m a software guy, I’m a geek. But as soon as you get out here, you’re not a professor anymore, you’re not a wildlife guy anymore, you’re not a jock anymore. You’re all in it together.”

Health and wellness fairs

In February, the CCG held the first in a series of planned mini-health-fairs, a Mental Health and Wellness Fair at East Elementary School in Monroe. There, parents learned about the signs of depression and children could make stress balls. Two days later, the CCG held a heart-health fair at Wingate Elementary.

Elementary-school kids examine real animal hearts

Wingate Elementary students learned about the inner workings of the heart during a health fair in early 2020.

 

Elementary schools, it turns out, are a good place to distribute information aimed not just at young kids but also at the elderly. “I think it’s really good for bridging the gap,” says Jesse Granger ’18, the options counselor and SHIIP (Seniors’ Health Insurance Information Program) coordinator for the Union County Council on Aging, who was handing out pamphlets describing the various services her organization offers. “You tend to think you’re not going to find seniors at elementary schools, but especially with the drug epidemic going around, a lot of times there are grandparents raising their grandkids.”

An oral-health fair was planned for April but had to be scrapped because of Covid-19. With large gatherings prohibited through the fall, the CCG has had to get creative with providing health information. A series of videos have been produced, with the help of the Department of Physical Therapy and the Department of Occupational Therapy, that promote good posture for sitting at a desk and for learning at home, how best to wear a backpack, how to reduce stress during the pandemic, fun strategies for at-home learning, and how to increase your flexibility.

Calculating the University’s impact

Similar to ALIEN, two other projects will have longer-term ramifications. Each spring, Dr. Kristin Stowe’s 400-level Economic Impact Analysis class will research a local nonprofit’s economic impact on Union County.

Last semester, they started with the University itself. Using software from the economic-analysis firm Implan, paid for by a grant from the University’s Board of Visitors, Stowe’s class determined that the University accounted for $168 million in economic activity in 2019. Spending by University students supported 96 jobs and contributed $5.4 million in economic activity.

Alumni living in the area supported 202 jobs and created over $25 million in economic activity, and the University as a whole, including alumni, supported 1,293 jobs in Union County.

Students in classes taught by math professors Dr. Sandi Mills and Dr. Kaitlyn Perry spent the fall semester calculating the impact of Wingate’s sustainability efforts.

Math professor Sandi Mills goes over some data with a student

As part of the Green Revolving Loan Fund, a U.S. Department of Energy program that encourages universities, healthcare providers and other organizations to make their buildings more energy efficient, Wingate has made several improvements to some older buildings on campus. Hot-water tanks have been replaced in Alumni residence hall; in the Ethel K. Smith Library, 40 percent of the original, 60-year-old lights have been replaced with energy-efficient bulbs; and plug load controllers have been installed for many large electronic devices on campus, such as water fountains and photocopiers.

Another facet of the GRLF project is the placement of energy-use meters in six buildings on campus. That’s where Mills and Perry come in. Their students have been taking data from the meters and comparing the energy use in those buildings. The University can then use those findings to make decisions about future purchases, with an eye on being as energy-conscious as possible.

“There will be almost $15,000 in energy savings per year, but almost all occurs outside the sight of our students,” Wright says. “Therefore, to motivate students, faculty, and staff to develop innovative strategies to understand and reduce energy use, our math department is incorporating this analysis into their general education courses.”

The exercise is especially beneficial to students, who get to practice their math skills in a real-world setting.

Perry’s course, Quantitative Reasoning (Math 116), is a general math class composed primarily of freshmen. Toward the end of last semester, students worked on a project in which they compared the Wednesday and Sunday energy use of two buildings on campus.

Mills’ course, Inferential Statistics (Math 209), is more advanced. In her class, students dug deeper, comparing buildings’ energy use over an entire month.

Mills’ hope is that the students’ findings will influence the University’s construction and renovation of buildings. “If nothing else, we make the students more aware, and we’re hoping we can take this some places and present it,” Mills says.

Those are long-term goals that don’t provide the dopamine boost that some volunteer efforts do, such as providing teaching supplies or checking people’s blood pressure at a health fair. But Wright has found that Wingate students are no less eager to serve just because they don’t get to see the good they’re doing firsthand.

“Sometimes the behind-the-scenes and the invisible infrastructure is just as important,” she says. “You need people who care about that as well. That’s an important lesson that Covid taught us. And the students are still enthused.”

Fostering enthusiasm for helping others. Sounds like the CCG is a success already.