Each year, the National Conference on Volunteering and Service (NCVS) convenes to celebrate and connect service organizations throughout the country and promote education on civic engagement and corporate volunteering. A key component to each conference is a service project that supports community initiatives in the host city. This year, we were thrilled to welcome NCVS to Chicago and collaborate with Points of Light and HandsOn Network for the 2012 service project, titled Seeds for Change.

Seeds for Change, in partnership with the Mayor’s Office and Chicago Public Schools, supports community gardens at Chicago Public Schools and increases access to healthy, fresh foods. Seeds for Change projects engaged students, parents, school administration and conference attendees in creating garden plots, planting seedlings, constructing greenhouses, benches and more.

Schmid Elementary
In the northern corner of Pullman, in the neighborhood of Cottage Grove Heights, stands Schmid Elementary – or if you ask the staff and students, The “New” Schmid. Since August of 2011, a new administration has been working hard to transform the school, leaving behind challenges left by the school’s former leaders. Schmid faculty are committed to rebuilding the culture and climate of the school, starting with their five core values: respect, persistence, accountability, family, and integrity. As expectations have been raised, the discipline rate has plummeted. In previous years the suspension rate was over 50%, but has now dropped below 20% in less than one school year. Poverty is a major part of Schmid students’ lives, with 93.4% designated as low-income.

Volunteers created a garden space from start to finish, constructing raised beds, assembling a storage shed, mulching pathways, planting seedlings and painting garden-themed murals and signs to inspire and motivate students. Other outdoor improvements included completing general landscaping projects throughout the school grounds and painting plywood murals to welcome the community to the school.

University of Chicago Donoghue Charter School
Located on Chicago’s Near South side, the Oakland neighborhood is a mile-long strip hugging Chicago’s lakefront. Since the Great Migration during the early 20th century, the neighborhood has predominantly been home to African American families. The University of Chicago Donoghue Charter School serves as a valuable resource to the Oakland community, opening its doors outside of school hours for parents and community members to learn and grow alongside students.

Volunteers made an impact at Donoghue through a number of outdoor projects, dramatically improving the courtyard garden area with landscaping and planting to complement Donoghue’s Fresh Fruit and Veggie Program. Volunteer efforts provided space for students to enjoy newly added recess time and give faculty and parents a learning space worthy of the direction they are taking Donoghue.

Wendell Phillips High School
Wendell Phillips High School is located in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, just 3 miles south of McCormick Place. Bronzeville is not only a historic Chicago neighborhood, but one of the most notable African-American communities in the nation’s history. Founded in the late 1800s and known as the “Black Metropolis,” Bronzeville was at one point home to the city’s most prominent African-American politicians, artists, entrepreneurs, intellectuals and clergy. Wendell Phillips High School mirrors Bronzeville’s rich history and has represented opportunity for a large community, as for years it was the only high school that African-Americans were able to attend in Chicago. Today, Phillips High School continues to be a beacon of opportunity for the Bronzeville community. Offering a variety of classroom and hands-on curriculums such as the Junior Air Force ROTC, a sound engineering program and a student-led veggie farm; Wendell Phillips High School is working tirelessly to provide a learning environment that can fully address student needs.

Volunteers at Phillips had a profound impact on the school and surrounding community by aiding efforts to offer students opportunities to apply their knowledge and skills outside of the classroom through the development of a vegetable farm. Volunteers constructed tables and benches to improve the garden’s learning environment and students and faculty joined the volunteers, painting a variety of garden signs that can educate students and community members about gardening. These projects will help transform Wendell Phillips Veggie Farm into a welcoming place for the entire Bronzeville community.

On-site at the Conference
Following the NCVS opening plenary, all conference attendees had the opportunity to assemble seed packets, seedling and implementation guides to create hundreds of “Seeds for Change community garden kits.” These kits will be distributed to 500 Chicago Public Schools across the city. By encouraging and supporting a garden in every school with Seeds of Change, volunteers help nourish the whole child and cultivate community connection.

Thank you to the thousands of NCVS volunteers who came to our city as strangers and are leaving as friends. We appreciate your time and dedication in helping us support the future leaders of Chicago!