When Ulyses Perez Perez started working at Pillsbury United Communities last month, he knew he’d be helping provide members of the community with fresh fruits and vegetables, proteins, grains and dairy. What he’s learned during his short time at the nonprofit organization is just how much food insecurity exists in the community.
“One fact that has really stuck with me since the start of the program is that one in eight people in Hennepin County do not know where their next meal will come from,” said the sophomore exercise science major. “Since the global pandemic, it is one in six people.”
Perez Perez is part of a select group of undergraduates who are part of Tommie Corps, a new program from the Center for the Common Good. As part of Tommie Corps, students receive a $4,000 scholarship in recognition of 150 volunteer hours fulfilled over the course of July and August. The program is made possible by donations from Lee and Penny Anderson and the GHR Foundation.
Filling the gaps
More than 100 undergraduates applied to be Tommie Corps members. The 24 chosen for the program were paired with one of 15 community partners including Pillsbury United Communities, Second Harvest Heartland, YWCA St. Paul and Keystone Community Services.
With COVID-19 disproportionately affecting the older population, who are a big part of the volunteer community, nonprofits are looking to young people to fill in the gaps, said Casey Gordon, Tommie Corps director and Center for the Common Good program manager. She hopes students will come away from Tommie Corps with an appreciation for the inner workings of social progress.
“They’ll see how it can be messy and how it can be slow – how it truly looks to be involved in the process,” she said. “A lot of people think there’s a way they’re going to be involved where they just show up and go ding and make a difference. But the truth is, it’s the everyday showing up and doing whatever small part it is that you can do and then hopefully over a period of time being able to see that growth in your contribution.”
Tommie Corps goes beyond volunteering with meetings each week touching on a variety of social justice subjects.
“When we were getting this program set up, the killing of George Floyd happened followed by the uprising in the Twin Cities and then the world,” Gordon said. “We knew we needed to have racial equity and racial justice be a lens that we use in all of our Tommie Corps talks. In addition to the volunteer component, we have learning sessions where either a professor, a university staff member or community member will come in and talk about things including power and privilege. There are also different trainings scheduled for students so they can go into community partners’ spaces with an understanding of how to work with the communities in an ethical way.”
Perez Perez said the program has helped him see the bigger picture and the work that needs to be done in Twin Cities communities.
“One thing I am certain of when the Tommie Corps ends this summer is that I will try my best to contribute back to the community,” he said. “Whether it is coming back to help a great organization like Pillsbury United Communities or giving my own time and commitment somewhere else. Useful work within our community will always be needed in the world we live in today.”
When Ethan Neal, food systems manager for Pillsbury United Communities, first heard about the Tommie Corps program he thought it was a prime opportunity for students to connect to the community work that is happening at such an important time in the Twin Cities.
“These past few weeks with the Tommie Corps have been a game changer for us,” Neal said about the seven students he oversees. “This program started at the perfect time for us as we have seen
an increased demand from COVID-19 and then the uprising. The Tommies were there to help carry the load. In the nearly 10 years I have worked at Pillsbury United [Communities], I have worked with thousands of volunteers and interns and I must say this has been one of my favorite groups I have worked with.
“All the students have shown a great deal of work ethic and also kindness,” he added. “We work in a place that can be really hard. Seeing the homelessness and folks needing food to get by, it can be hard. Every student showed a great deal of respect and understanding for our community and they are welcome back anytime.”
Thach Nguyen, a junior electrical engineering major, said his experience working at Pillsbury United Communities opened his eyes to the world of agriculture. He also learned a lot from listening to the stories of fellow volunteers, who talked about their experiences and the neighborhood. Nguyen appreciates both the opportunity to give back to the community and have access to a meaningful scholarship.
“It allows me to focus more on completing my degree and following my passion; that also encourages me to give to others and realize the values, missions and wisdoms that I should carry out to the world as a proud Tommie,” he said.
Pamela R. Fletcher Bush, CEO and publisher of Arcata Press/St. Paul Almanac, said she also appreciated the university’s efforts to connect students to community organizations during this economically challenging time and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. She has one Tommie Corps worker who is cataloguing literary and visual art works that have been published over the past 12 years, and pulling pieces to post on social media that promote conversations around social justice and activism.
“I jumped at the opportunity to work with the university in its effort to educate its students in social justice causes,” Fletcher Bush said. “It’s terrific that the program ties this effort to attaining a scholarship for doing this important work.”
A senior studying biochemistry, Dessi Vargas hopes to one day have a job in the medical field. She said her time at Keystone Community Services working with people from a diverse range of backgrounds will help her in her future medical career. Putting yourself out there and giving back to the community, Vargas said, is one small way you can get involved and directly impact lives.
“I have also learned that it is really hard to ask for help, but that becomes much easier when you have a community that is designed to be there for you at your most vulnerable and make you feel like you belong,” she said. “I have also gained a lot of knowledge from the speakers that take time from their schedules to speak to us about the experiences they have had. This knowledge has been critical in the work we are doing to make us better volunteers … as well as the work we will continue to do moving forward in our lives.”
At ReConnectRondo, a nonprofit whose mission is the realization of a Rondo Land Bridge to reconnect communities proximate to I-94 in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, senior computer science major Teja Bhimavarapu volunteers remotely. His work at ReConnectRondo testing online community engagement tools will help prepare him for a future job in corporate technology, he said.
“The act of volunteering is amazingly rewarding in itself, and I am filled with deep gratitude to have been given the scholarship for being an active member of my University of St. Thomas and greater community,” Bhimavarapu said. “Opportunities like these are what keep me motivated to do even more. Moving forward, I want to keep making an impact and rewriting the history within my grasp. This scholarship inspires me for what is to come in the future.”