Over the course of the summer, Gephardt Institute staff members have reorganized and reallocated storage spaces associated with building renovations and office moves. While inventorying materials and supplies, we identified an opportunity to “upcycle” and find a new use for items that had been in storage since the Service First program was discontinued and Meet St. Louis was launched.
Service First was a program for first year students. Each Labor Day weekend, students loaded onto school buses with paint, supplies, and garden equipment to volunteer at local public and charter schools. Students worked with fellow residents from their Residential Colleges to paint murals, decorate bulletin boards, organize libraries, clean, garden, and paint fences as a free service.
Although the program reached over 1,000 students annually, there were many challenges with this approach to engaging students in community service. Participants had little context to understand the schools where they were working, and few school representatives could be present on a holiday weekend. While students built relationships with each other, they missed an opportunity to connect more deeply with local community members.
Through a year of planning and stakeholder meetings, the Gephardt Institute redesigned Service First. The new program, called Meet St. Louis, launched in 2015 and serves as an entry point for students to get to know the region through unique neighborhood excursions before being asked to provide service. It begins with education, listening, reflection, and relationship development as the foundation for future community engagement. From there, the Gephardt Institute is able to help students navigate opportunities to bridge from campus to the community and find a unique pathway into ongoing civic and community engagement that aligns with their personal values. Its evolution has allowed us to reduce the volume of supplies and equipment needed each year. As many will recall, this equipment included large amounts of paint rollers, paint brushes, office supplies, and teacher supplies.
Beginning in July, Gephardt Institute staff identified materials that could be used for programs like Meet St. Louis and worked with representatives from the Institute for School Partnership and Government & Community Relations to determine other potential uses for public and charter school partners. LuAnn Oros, coordinator of Civic Engagement Programs at the Gephardt Institute, then reached out to several community organizations representing underserved populations.
First, LuAnn helped fill 50 backpacks with school supplies and distributed them to families at Oasis International, an organization that welcomes and supports refugees as they settle into St. Louis. An additional 45 backpacks filled with supplies were given to Pastoral Fellowship of St. Louis to be distributed to under-resourced children in St. Louis city. Nine teachers received the remainder of the supplies and had the option to take office items like index cards, tape, and stickers. Leftover office items were donated to the Jefferson Barracks Military Family Community Center and Food Pantry. This organization serves a large number of families and will use money saved on supplies to purchase more food for the pantry. Finally, Habitat for Humanity received 15 pallets of construction and paint supplies to help build housing for low income families.
The Gephardt Institute is thrilled that these items have found new homes in the St. Louis community and is thankful to the partners who facilitated their relocation.