Dozens of students at U of T Mississauga are staying in town for Reading Week to volunteer with local community organizations.
Just over 70 students are taking part in Alternative Reading Week, an annual three-day program where students are assigned projects with various community organizations in Peel. This year 10 organizations are participating with 11 projects.
Some of the organizations have been partnered with UTM for a number of years, says Michelle Atkinson, community engagement coordinator with the Centre of Student Engagement.
“They are real world projects,” she continues, explaining that organizations come forward with a challenge for students to undertake.
One group of students, for example, is working with The Dam Youth Drop-In Centre preparing for the upcoming Coldest Night of the Year family walk that takes place on Saturday. That same group is also involved with youth programming at the centre.
“They are having a lot of fun hanging out with the youth that are popping into the drop-in centre,” Atkinson says.
Other initiatives include running a tutoring program for Safe City Mississauga, developing a marketing strategy for Caledon Meals on Wheels, and creating a 30-second video about updating phone privacy settings for Caledon Dufferin Victim Services.
Some students work in the community while others develop their initiatives on campus in partnership with the organization.
Students commit to three days of volunteering. The program starts by bringing participants together in the same room so they can see the larger impact their combined efforts are having in the community, Atkinson says. It wraps up with an impact fair, where community organizations and their campus partners share their projects and see what was achieved.
Atkinson says she receives “great feedback” and students often participate multiple years.
“We sometimes get a bit of hesitation when we have a new partner because they’re not aware yet of what a group of students can accomplish in three days,” Atkinson says of UTM’s community partners. “It’s really quite amazing. If you stick eight UTM students in a room, they can solve some major problems.
“Our community organizations love it.”
Community groups get dedicated volunteers who are university educated and bring specific skills to meet the challenges set before them, while students have an opportunity to learn more about complex issues in the community, develop skills and build their network.
Students also learn that they are active members of their community – a relationship that doesn’t end at graduation, Atkinson says. “The community you live in is something you should be contributing to.”