Food for thought: Village Project students get hands-on learning experience

The "It Takes a Village" Project's fall semester concluded with a food-themed lesson hosted by Elon Dining and Harvest Table Culinary Group.

For one night, Alumni Gym turned into a kitchen and classroom for Alamance-Burlington School System students participating in Elon’s “It Takes a Village” Project.

The Village Project teamed up with Elon’s campus dining provider Harvest Table Culinary Group for an experiential learning exercise to conclude weeks of studying. It was a culmination of what students learned over the first seven weeks of the program’s fall 2019 semester.

“You really learn by doing,” said Jean Rattigan-Rohr, vice president for access and success and founder of the Village Project. “Students have been sitting in the classroom for the past seven weeks. Now, coming here to put all the pieces together, you see how far they’ve come. It really is a good feeling.”

A Village Project student enjoys yogurt during the end-of-semester event.

During the program, local students come to Elon’s campus every Wednesday after school for eight weeks in the fall and spring. They work one-on-one or in small groups with Elon student tutors on mathematics, reading comprehension and other areas.

This semester, the lessons were based on a food theme. Pre-kindergarten to fourth-grade students focused on the cycle of food, fifth-graders examined the economics of food, middle-school students used cooking elements to better understand mathematical concepts, and high school students studied food insecurity in Alamance County.

The event at Alumni Gym brought each of those themes together for a night of hands-on learning for Village Project students and their families. The evening’s food-related activities were planned by Harvest Table for the second consecutive year.

“I think food brings people together, food brings people to the table, and this just shows that,” said Harvest Table Resident District Manager Laura Thompson. “These kids come back year after year, and so if we can impact them over five or six years, it’s just a great thing.”

Village Project students and families wait to pet dairy cows from Carolina Culture dairy farm.

One of the night’s lessons included a hands-on look at the creation of dairy products. The Village Project’s youngest students were given the chance to pet cows from Bahama, North Carolina, dairy farm Carolina Culture. Students learned about how the cows produce milk to make dairy products like yogurt.

Inside the gym, fifth- to eighth-grade students worked alongside their Elon tutors and Harvest Table chefs to create their own hummus recipes, as they learned to use measurements and fractions in the cooking process.

Fifth-grader Jhamir Evans and his tutor Jacob Stern ’20 concocted a hummus dip that included onions, cilantro and red peppers. Evans and Stern have learned to work well together after spending the past year as a student-tutor duo. Stern, an economics and history major, has helped Evans develop his math skills, which have already paid off in the classroom.

“It makes me feel great,” Evans said. “Jacob’s methods have been helping me in school. I’ve been doing better with my grades.”

But while Stern says he’s happy to see Evans’ math skills improve, he admits he’s more excited to see how their relationship has grown.

“It means the world,” Stern said. “I think the actual math is secondary to me. It’s really just about getting to know him and listening to him. I think that’s a little more important to me.”

Kenisha Flintall, Evans’ mother, has been bringing her son to Elon for the Village Project for three years and says she’s noticed positive changes in and out of the classroom.

“I’ve seen maturity, I’ve seen him try harder,” she said. “His confidence was broken at one time, and that’s been built back up. He loves coming to Elon every week.”

Tajgi Fields ’20 and Village Project students perform an original rap song about food insecurity in Alamance County.

The Village Project’s high school students spent the semester learning a different sort of lesson as they focused on food insecurity in Alamance County. The program’s oldest students spent the fall semester creating public service announcements and marketing initiatives to raise awareness of the issue in the community. The group also wrote a rap about food insecurity and presented it to families at the end-of-semester event with the help of Elon music production major Tajgi Fields ’20.

The high schoolers took their efforts a step further during the event, working in the Lakeside Dining Hall kitchen to prepare 50 meals of ham, sweet potato casserole and green beans to be delivered to Allied Churches of Alamance County.

Sydney Simmons ’20, a sociology major and Odyssey Scholar, has volunteered with the Village Project’s high school unit since her first year at Elon. She says she’s honored to serve the organization year after year.

“It’s amazing to see students graduate out of the program, and then to see the new first-years come in,” she said. “It’s reassuring to me that what we’re doing is right, and that this program really does make a difference in the lives of the community members.”

More than 200 Elon students volunteered to tutor Village Project students this semester.

Founded in 2008, the “It Takes A Village” Project operates within the university’s Center for Access and Success. The program takes a collaborative approach to assist local students with reading, mathematics and other academic areas. Students and their parents meet with Elon student tutors and trained community volunteers for weekly tutoring sessions on campus. The program features two eight-week sessions in the spring and fall, as well as the Summer in the Village program during the summer months.

This year, more than 200 Elon students volunteered for the program, which is the largest number the Village Project has seen.

Those volunteers have had a positive impact on Deanna Foust-Platt’s two sons. She says the Village Project has introduced her children to a diverse group of people and ideas, paired them with positive role models and given them the confidence to succeed on whatever path they choose.

“That makes a big difference,” she said. “I think the program not only teaches our kids how to treat one another, but how to be proud of where they are and where they can go.”

But, students are not the only people touched by the Village Project experience. Madelyn Pastrana, project coordinator for the Village Project, has been involved with the program since the beginning and says she’s proud to see how the project and its students have grown.

“It’s absolutely changed who I am as a person, and I think the impact on everyone’s life – not just the families participating, but the Elon students and faculty and staff participating year after year – it’s pretty incredible to see what they’ve been able to accomplish,” she said.

To learn more about the “It Takes a Village” Project, visit the program’s website here.