With small grants and advising from the University Community Service Center, student-led projects create ripples of community impact

maggie rivera

UChicago fourth-year Maggie Rivera had been attending informal Sunday sports gatherings outside the Wadsworth migrant shelter in Woodlawn for a few months when the idea of a public banquet for shelter residents and their South Side neighbors started circulating last fall. Woodlawn’s First Presbyterian Church had hosted a similar event the previous spring but needed additional resources to make it happen again.

“The church had the space but not the funding,” Rivera said. “I said, ‘You know, I’m a University of Chicago student, I know that can come with baggage sometimes in terms of coming into community spaces, but at the same time there’s a lot of resources here. I felt like it was just magical when the microgrant opportunity came.”

Rivera applied for and received a $1,000 microgrant administered by the University Community Service Center (UCSC) and funded by The Allstate Foundation in October.

With the funds, First Presbyterian, in partnership with local community group Chicago4All, was able to host a holiday banquet for more than 100 community members in November. Newcomers living in the Wadsworth shelter and longtime Woodlawn residents shared a meal at the event, as well as their own stories with the help of Spanish-speaking facilitators. In addition to working closely with community partners to plan the banquet, Rivera engaged fellow UChicago students — recruiting and leading a group of volunteers for the event and a series of follow-up activities, but also helping educate her peers about local issues and modeling a positive, considerate approach to supporting their neighbors.

“It was really a beautiful event and it’s so much thanks to Maggie and this funding from the University of Chicago filling the gap,” First Presbyterian’s pastor David Black said. “We saw this opportunity to bring people together because these two communities are not at odds with each other—we have the same interests of making sure that every person living in Chicago has a secure place to stay and a pathway to get jobs and citizenship and the things that people need to be able to thrive and flourish in our city. Maggie put a lot of effort into making this happen, but I think what she also did was create space for other University students to engage on a lower level of commitment which just builds the community’s sense that this student body is invested in it and the University as a whole is invested in the community.”

church ucsc

Rivera’s was one of seven student-led projects to date to receive a microgrant and additional support from UCSC, which operates within the Office of Civic Engagement. Other grantee efforts included supporting conservation work in Jackson Park, providing resources for people incarcerated in Cook County Jail, leading local students interested in urban farming and sustainable cooking on a field trip to a nearby apple orchard, donating running shoes to migrants and engaging them in local athletic programs, and hand-making stuffed animals for Ronald McDonald House families.

Supporting young leaders

Helping to equip UChicago students with the tools they need to lead community collaborations like these has long been at the heart of UCSC’s work. Through the administration of these grants and the support UCSC offers along with them, the center is building on that work, connecting emerging student leaders like Rivera with financial resources that allow them to bring their ideas to life while also learning best community engagement practices and making a meaningful impact.

“Student-community collaborations are the backbone of UCSC’s work and have been since our founding in the late ’90s,” UCSC Director Nick Currie said. “When we support these collaborations through projects like the microgrants funded by The Allstate Foundation, we’re not just providing students with experiences and organizations with labor or funds. We’re helping the University have an impact on local communities and initiatives by empowering and resourcing young leaders who can make thoughtful contributions and build meaningful relationships.”

The Allstate Foundation empowers youth (ages 5 – 25) to serve and improve communities. One way is by increasing youth and young adult’s access to funds for youth-led, youth-driven community service projects through microgrants like these.

“The Allstate Foundation is proud to support organizations like UCSC, which play an indispensable role in supporting youth-led service and equipping young people with the vital tools needed to serve their communities,” said Greg Weatherford II, Youth Empowerment Officer for The Allstate Foundation. “We hope the efforts of these UChicago students inspire more youth to serve and accelerate positive change where they live and beyond.”

Learning how to engage more thoughtfully

When Haley Coleman returned to UChicago last year after a summer researching food access systems in Seattle, UCSC’s microgrants were a way for the cycling enthusiast to get her excess food distribution project up and peddling. Coleman, a second-year Global Studies major, invested her microgrant in three used bicycle carriers (or “buggies”), as well as some maintenance tools, to allow her and a small group of fellow UChicago student volunteers to transport excess food from local businesses to food pantries and eventually compost centers by bike.

“I’ve just been blown away by the support and the enthusiasm that people have had for this project. People have come up to me and asked how can I do this more often? People showed up when it was below freezing and icy and we haven’t had to cancel a ride since the beginning of the quarter,” Coleman said. “It’s been super fun and I think being able to extend food accessibility in this community is so important.”

coleman bike

Coleman, who grew up in the Dallas area, says receiving the grant itself from UCSC was a big help but the additional community engagement guidance and support each grant recipient got from the UCSC team through required workshops and advising was invaluable. UCSC, as well as the broader Office of Civic Engagement, Coleman says, have helped her ground the work that she’s doing and offer students like her important context about thoughtfully entering community.

“Not only did it give some kind of accountability—you have a project advisor to hold you accountable to some of the goals—they also gave me some great resources as far as spreadsheets, project tracking, and also just knowing other people in the community who are looking to make a difference. To be able to be a part of a greater community of people trying to help other people has been really cool,” Coleman said. “They really helped me push my project in the right direction. Even just having that space, having the funding, so much support has come from the University and it’s been amazing just to see how far it’s been able to stretch.”

Connecting with new communities

Rivera, too, says she’s grateful for the meaningful connections the microgrant projects and accompanying support have helped foster—both with like-minded UChicago students and members of the South Side community. The work allowed Rivera to strengthen her leadership skills and build on relationships she’d made with residents of the Wadsworth shelter and broader Woodlawn community. And, as a native Chicagoan who grew up in the South Loop and went to high school on the city’s North Side, Rivera says she was also grateful for a chance to learn about the history and dynamics of a different neighborhood.

“I think this city has so much beauty and diversity and so many beautiful things that happen,” Rivera said. “I’ve always been really drawn to getting to know people and getting to learn from people, as well as offering what I have and that kind of collaborative effort, but I think on a larger level with this banquet, providing spaces for dialogue and participating in spaces where people can connect—I’m not going to say it’s a silver bullet, but I do think that being part of grassroots, community-led efforts for both new and old neighbors is really important.”

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