Last Friday, 2,184 food items and 865 clothing items were distributed to local families in need, just in time for the holidays.
What made Friday’s charitable event so remarkable is that the entire project, from conception to execution, was not driven by the Salvation Army or some other well-known organization, but by the students of YouthBuild of McLean County, a charter school designed for low-income students.
The story of this inspiring food and clothing drive has deep ties to ISU’s College of Education.
It all started in 2010 with a chance encounter and a bit of curiosity.
“I was driving around and saw the YouthBuild building and didn’t know what it was,” Erin Mikulec, assistant professor in the School of Teaching and Learning, said. “So I walked in and asked, ‘What do you do here?’ They told me, and I was impressed, so I left my card.”
From there, a fruitful relationship with Mikulec and YouthBuild blossomed, and by spring 2011, many of Mikulec’s teaching students were completing their required clinical observation hours at the charter school.
“It just started, because I was curious about YouthBuild, and it seemed like a great place for students to do observations,” Mikulec said. “It is a very different kind of experience, a very different school environment.”
With one of her most frequent collaborators at YouthBuild, social studies teacher Adam Herrmann, Mikulec began to formulate ways in which ISU’s teaching students could more fully engage with YouthBuild and its students.
“We wanted to take it up a notch, having the ISU students not just observing, but taking on some kind of service project,” Herrmann said. “We are a service-oriented organization, so we thought it would be a good thing to do service learning.”
Herrmann and Mikulec knew that a service project would foster a mutually beneficial relationship between YouthBuild and ISU students, all while lending a helping hand to those in need.
“We picked a leadership team of my students and took them to ISU, where they took on leadership roles,” Herrmann said. “They organically came up with the idea for a food and clothing drive at our first meeting. When the ISU students came here, they collectively had conversations about the project.”
It was love at first sight: The ISU and YouthBuild students immediately had a connection.
“One of the things that got students really excited about the project was Adam bringing some of his students to ISU,” Mikulec said. “There was a connection. It really fostered a commitment to the project.”
Soon, a natural leader began to emerge among the YouthBuild students, an extremely driven young man named Kay Kay Fitch.
Fitch keeps himself quite busy. On top of the service project and duties at home, Fitch juggles his time between basketball practice, AmeriCorps service and rapping.
“Everything can be manageable,” Fitch said.
After deciding on the details of the drive, the students began the exhausting process of collecting names and phone numbers of individuals in the community in need, and were nearly overwhelmed by the outpour of interest in the project.
“It was a lot of people,” said Herrmann. “I wasn’t necessarily expecting the need to be that great.”
But Fitch and the others were up for the challenge.
“Once we got the names, I was instantly on it, making phone calls,” Fitch said. “I stayed one day after school until 6 p.m. calling families.”
From there, students began collecting the food and clothing.
“We collected a lot from the YouthBuild family,” Herrmann said. “We got a good chunk of stuff from the Midwest food bank, the school of education and through Dr. Mikulec’s classes.”
“It was a massive undertaking to do the duel food and clothing drive during the holiday season,” Herrmann said.
Walking through the YouthBuild building early Friday, one would have to conclude that the group’s efforts were stunningly successful. That Friday morning, YouthBuild looked less like a school and more like a breathtaking cross between a food pantry and a thrift store. ISU and YouthBuild students could be seen hard at work, harmoniously sorting and boxing the massive amounts of food, and folding and organizing the hundreds of clothing items.
“If you can rely on a little bit of extra food or clothes for the month, you can put that extra money somewhere else, especially during the holidays,” Herrmann said.
That extra bit of money may mean that a child in need will find a gift under the Christmas tree that would not be there if it were not for the efforts of the talented young people of YouthBuild.