Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas

Business Learning Through Service Makes an Impact for 30 Years

Generating over $6.3 million dollars' worth of work at over 300 nonprofits in the Twin Cities per year, it is safe to say St. Thomas' Business Learning Through Service program has grown to make quite the splash since it was added to the university's curriculum in 1991.

“It's been 30 years, which is pretty amazing,” Dean of Opus College of Business Stefanie Lenway said. “Nothing lasts for 30 years, so this is enduring because it's important. It's important because it teaches students there's more to business.”

Business 200 is a noncredit course required for students in Opus. To complete the course, students must volunteer at a nonprofit of their choice for 40 hours, attend four informational classes and accomplish a series of reflective assignments. Students have the opportunity to bring their education in marketing, operations, strategic design, finance, etc., to these organizations, aiding in whatever way possible.

Student facilitators teach required classes, grade assignments, manage communications with students and help complete projects that support the Business Learning Through Service program.

“A good part of the success of the program is that it’s supported by peers. It’s students helping other students recognize the importance of service,” Lenway said.

St. Thomas students have provided an average of over 28,000 hours annually toward lessening major metro issues surrounding inmate education, homelessness, low-income career and educational advancement opportunities, and more. Business 200 students have completed over 720,000 hours of service since 1991.

“The community in which we live is an important part in the quality life for everybody. Through supporting these nonprofits, our students strengthen the community,” Lenway continued.

With the help from Business 200 faculty and staff, the Newsroom has highlighted a few nonprofits that have used Business 200 to swell their local impact. Learn how FreeWriters, Seeds Feeds, Joy Collaborative and Dress for Success are being changemakers with the help of St. Thomas' Business 200 students.

Business 200 leadership

Julie Reiter, director of Business Learning Through Service.

Julie Reiter joined the Business 200 team in 2018. Since then, as the director of Business Learning Through Service, she has elevated the Business 200 profile and presence at St. Thomas exponentially.

“She has incredible and unique experiences that allow for students to be engaged. She's the perfect person for the job. I couldn't think of a better person to lead the charge in all things Business 200,” Maddy Morehouse '20, a Business 200 facilitator, said.

Before joining the St. Thomas team, Reiter served as a civil rights attorney, adjunct professor and assistant director of professional development at William Mitchell College of Law and executive director of Union Park District Council. Her history in philanthropic work and passion for nonprofits has seeped into the excitement students grasp in the St. Thomas Business 200 program.


Johnson and his friend at the George Floyd memorial.

Nate Johnson ’01 has been on a mission of giving county jail inmates creative writing opportunities. Two and a half years ago, Johnson was working as a prosecutor in southern Minnesota and decided he needed a change of life. One day a man named Joe came to Johnson during an alcoholics recovery meeting in request of a sponsorship.

“We bonded really quickly. Joe had a hard childhood and was struggling to stay sober. He was 25 at the time,” Johnson said.

Johnson eventually quit his job as a prosecutor and moved to Minneapolis. In between jobs, Johnson took a creative writing seminar that exposed him to free writing.

“The way that it works is that you pick a writing prompt, like the day I was born or something random like that, and then the teacher says go. Everybody starts writing. You write for five minutes and the only rule is that you don’t stop writing,” Johnson explained.

Once the time runs out, anybody can read their composition. Johnson said he found the exercise highly therapeutic.

“I felt like I was learning things about my past and about what I wanted to do. It was super fun when we all read out loud what we’ve written because you get to know people so fast,” he said.

Meanwhile, Joe had violated his probation and Johnson got wind that his friend had to serve some time in jail. Johnson traveled back down to southern Minnesota to check on Joe. Not long after, Johnson explained the benefits of free writing to him.

“When I was there, I learned that in county jails, specifically, inmates don’t ever get to go outside or even look at a window to the outside. There’s very little mental stimulation in terms of classroom programming,” Johnson said.

County jails suffer from high turnover and a lack of volunteers to provide opportunities such as classes for inmates. These smaller jails often don’t provide mental health services either.

“I was trying to figure out what to do to keep him sane. I taught him [free writing] and he loved it right away. At the end of his [sentence] I asked him if he thought the other guys in his cell block would like it and he said yes,” he said.

Johnson said he learned a lot of the inmates he worked with were very creatively inclined, yet had little ability to practice these skills while in jail. Desiring to provide Joe and the other inmates a more tolerable environment, Johnson approached the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office with the idea of making free writing into a scalable class within Minnesotan prisons.

“That was just over two years ago and it’s been going great ever since,” he said.

Johnson accepting an award a few years ago by the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association.

Averaging six to eight student writers at a time, Johnson said he has taught nearly 300 free writing classes and has no intention of stopping.

“What I’m trying to do is promote the idea that there are a lot of societal problems that might be able to be solved, or at least addressed, if we could get some creative writing and creative arts access into these facilities,” he said.

He went on to say that free writing has the ability to uplift people’s moods and mental health, giving a sense of confidence that is incomparable.

By bringing Business 200 students on board to FreeWriters, Johnson has been able to post inmates’ writings on the FreeWriters Facebook page and has received valuable strategic guidance in both fundraising and graphic design sectors.

“It goes from being very tedious stuff to being pretty high-level, impactful work that could sustain us in the future,” he said.

Johnson said he began using Business 200 students in fall 2020; St. Thomas students continue to help elevate the message that inmates need to be supported, as they will be reunited into communities in a matter of time.

“We would love it if we could get some support from the community in helping us expand our program so that when these people get out, they’re not as frustrated and self-ashamed so they can more easily transition into what we could call productive lives,” he said.

He continued, saying we must “wake up these good-hearted people” by giving them opportunities to unleash their creative identity.

A recent example from one of FreeWriter's female inmates-students.

Seeds Feeds

Noticing there was a lack of healthy options for children in the local school system, founder Julie Rappaport started Seeds Feeds, hoping to educate families and students about where their food comes from. The organization focuses on food justice advocacy in St. Louis Park and has taught over 5,000 youth thus far.

Seeds Feeds serves marginalized communities, students and those interested in contributing toward lessening food insecurity.

Seeds Feeds Operations Director Ariel Steinman said the most rewarding part about working for the nonprofit is "watching the ripple effect of teaching kids about where food comes from."

Seeds Feeds has had over 25 student volunteers so far.

"Their work has always been very strong," she said.

When COVID-19 hit, Seeds Feeds had to adhere to the growing need to deliver local, fresh produce to the St. Louis Park and surrounding community. Business 200 students stepped up to the plate, carrying and delivering gallons of milk, meat and more.

St. Thomas students have provided their marketing knowledge, helping to make the organization's transition from its previous name, SLP SEEDS, as effortless as possible.

“Business 200 has helped us so much in the year we have worked with them. Last year when we had Business 200 [students], we had a lot of marketing students and they really helped us with our rebrand,” Steinman said. 

Hoping to create a volunteer and intern handbook for the organization, Steinman said their most recent need was satisfied by a student who had little knowledge of law concepts but regardless, sought out professional help to create these handbooks for the organization.

A Business 200 facilitator in the past, Mackenna Cristilly '21 said the opportunity granted to students through this course is special as “students have to come in and ask us difficult questions [such as] who you are serving [and] how am I a part of the solution.” Cristilly carried out her 40 hours while an undergraduate at the Opus College of Business at Seeds Feeds. She now serves as the food security and urban agriculture apprentice at Seeds Feeds.

Seeds Feeds currently serves nearly 90 households each week while continuing to expand their reach in St. Louis Park and beyond.

Learn more about Seeds Feeds and its approach to lessen food insecurity in the Twin Cities.

Joy Collaborative

Founder Mark Ostrom

Joy Collaborative partners with local designers to create spaces for youth with life-limiting conditions in effort to limit obstructions in these youth’s daily lives.

The design for Joy Collaborative gained real momentum after founder Mark Ostrom took an entrepreneurship class at St. Thomas. Afterward, Ostrom began getting involved with local nonprofits to elevate his knowledge of philanthropy, working nights and weekends for nonprofits such as Make-A-Wish and Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Just a few years ago, Ostrom left his job, deciding to pursue his calling of building a nonprofit that mixes his design history with his passion for helping the next generation.

“I originally went to school for music and I had to work with families who are disabled,” Ostrom said. “I was in college and understood that they didn’t have the capacity emotionally, physically or spiritually to really do much more than take care of their kids on a day-to-day basis.”

Ostrom says the work of Joy Collaborative is to “shift [the] trajectories” of youths' abilities.

“If it's somebody who is down emotionally or maybe can't do things physically that they want to be able to do, we can come in and shift that,” he said.

Ostrom said the work from the Business 200 students has been helpful in a number of ways.

“Some helped us comb databases so that we could increase our donor foundation email chain. They’ve helped in event planning [and have been] monumental in giv[ing] their input,” he said.

The student energy and relationships built have been important aspects to Ostrom as he continues to have Business 200 students who have graduated reach back to him, remaining connected.

“We can always use student energy. I’ve been involved in many academic programs before, but this one has really got legs to it,” he said.

Recently, Joy Collaborative worked with a young man suffering from multiple chronic conditions and who was deaf and blind. He needed a place where he could be himself for short periods of time.

“We came in and said, well, you need a high activity-based space for him. [We came] in and gave them some structure,” he explained.

The social impact on the young man was one of the most significant outcomes from this project. Ostrom said he recalled when the youth’s father reached out in tears after the project was completed.

“His dad was all teary-eyed and said, ‘You know, [he] never had friends over at his house.’ You know what that does socially to people, it just brings them so much value [and] self-worth,” he said.

This life-changing project was just one example of many that Joy Collaborative has completed in 2021. Business 200 students aid Joy Collaborative in creating and communicating stories such as these to the Twin Cities community so more youth can benefit.

“[They’ve contributed] marketing skills, innovative thinking, design thinking, out-of-the-box thinking. They've been very active personally and taking away time [during] their nights and [on] weekends to help us,” he said.

Joy Collaborative is looking for volunteers to spend an hour a week doing hands-on project work and behind the scenes assistance.

“You’re helping kids. That’s a real mood lifter,” he said.

Dress for Success

Co-founder Leah Maurer '05

“It really started from scratch with the four of us sitting down to figure out a business plan and what our demographic looked like in the Twin Cities for women. We wanted to serve,” said co-founder of Dress for Success Leah Maurer ’05.

Dress for Success opened its doors in 2010. Specializing in providing suiting, career services and job training to females in Minnesota, Dress for Success has had a strong presence in the Twin Cities, adding an estimated $3.8 million in economic spending. In 2021, Dress for Success assisted 152 women who have sustained employment and have an average salary of about $25,000 per year. Maurer said she credits the organization’s achievements to being flexible and willing to change for the better.

“We wanted to provide a solution for women to become economically sustainable themselves, depending on what their situation was, whether it was incarceration, poverty [or] maybe mental health issues. A place [to] serve as a solution for them in gaining the skills and tools they needed,” said Maurer.

EmPowerU are the services that make up Dress for Success Twin Cities services in its mission to empower women through employment.  

Typically, the organization serves 600 women a year, which equates to about 1,300 appointments annually. In addition, the average wage per hour for full-time and part-time Dress for Success clients increased from $10 an hour to $16 an hour.

"We want to make an impact holistically with each client, but also in our community, so that doesn't [just] mean employers, it might even end up being policy change or understanding how we ensure there is diversity, equity and inclusion, and policies that impact our clients' lives,” she said.

As clothing is donated, Dress for Success must sort and get the materials ready for its clients. Business 200 students continue to step into this critical role, helping to get females the clothing they need to feel confident and empowered.

Outreach is another area St. Thomas students have contributed to. Students who volunteer with Dress for Success aid in making sure that these women know that they’re welcome and maintain communication with clients, Maurer said.

In addition, Dress for Success teaches St. Thomas students invaluable life lessons that its founders and employees have learned over the years working for a growing nonprofit. These skills are important as they translate into the student's perception of the workplace, ultimately preparing them for their future.

“We had a lot to learn in the process and sometimes that meant failing or messing up or not doing something right or more or less. I would attribute a lot of our success to being willing to always change what we’re doing and make it better,” she said.

Going forward, Dress for Success hopes to help even more females get on their feet and into the workforce.

“So many different women have come through our doors, it's not necessarily a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. There [are] opportunities here for volunteers or if [anybody] knows someone that can be a client of ours, we’re here to help,” she said.

Hear from a Business 200 facilitator: Maddy Morehouse ’20

Maddy Morehouse '20

“I worked for Business 200 starting in the fall of 2016. I loved my experience with Business 200. I've always had a special interest in working in nonprofits and giving back to the community. I think it's so important that St. Thomas facilitates that connection between students giving back and their community partners. I was really interested in exploring more of that and seeing how I could get students connected to nonprofit organizations.

I was constantly impressed of how willing students were to give of themselves. It's a zero-credit course, so you are aren't earning any credit for it. [I was surprised by] how many students wanted to create something sustainably or improve the efficiency of the organization and truly give back, not only of their time, but really give up themselves.

The importance of supporting nonprofits extends well beyond just your college experience. I found that what I learned in Business 200 both as a student at the University of St. Thomas and from facilitating these courses, [is] that it doesn't stop and end at any place, it's a lifelong commitment to supporting the community.”

St. Thomas students have changed thousands of lives, creating a strong presence in the Twin Cities community through St. Thomas' the Business Learning Through Service program over its 30 years.

“It links back to the Catholic intellectual tradition. We’re really here to serve and we all do that in different ways,” Lenway said.