Teacher Vardina Harrington seized the moment with a lesson on awards in the Lucille W. Gorham Intergenerational Community Center afterschool program.
"What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word 'award?' " asked Harrington, a 2011 East Carolina University graduate.
The third- and fourth-grade students raised their hands with answers: a prize, achievement, awards day. "If you've won an award, you've done something great and people want to acknowledge you," she said.
And then Harrington told them. ECU had won the prestigious C. Peter Magrath University/Community Engagement Award for its establishment and support of the center in the underserved West Greenville community.
The award, and a $20,000 stipend, honors the work and programs of the intergenerational community center, a partnership with West Greenville residents, ECU, the city of Greenville and Pitt Community College, that provides a comprehensive community-based system of service and care to residents.
The competitive national award is presented annually by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and ECU was one of four finalists from a field of thousands.
The kids were excited, especially to hear the size of the stipend, and made congratulatory posters for staff returning home with the award. "We won based on what we do every day," Harrington said.
The community leads the work of the center. "It's not dictating and telling them what their needs are, but allowing the community to tell us what their needs are," said Shawan Sutton, director of the center's health and wellness program, IGCC Fit.
ECU's community engagement work with residents and at the center provides the perfect vehicle to accomplish the university's mission to serve as a model for public service and regional transformation with the motto 'servire,' or to serve, said Dr. Beth Velde, director of ECU's public service and community relations.
"At places like the Lucille W. Gorham Intergenerational Community Center, our students' learning does not shut off when they leave our classrooms," Velde said. "Our students experience real learning in real situations from community members who help in knowledge application. Community engagement fosters student success and those students who are involved leave ECU with great job skills and the knowledge necessary to be good citizens."
'We get it done'
The center's motto, 'we get it done,' is realized in the success of 14 programs planned and implemented since its founding in 2007 and its relationship with community non-profit agencies.
Two of those programs were specifically recognized in the national award citation:
The Youth Apprentice Program, which prepares juvenile offenders or at-risk youth to continue their secondary education, has seen all 33 participants either return to high school or earn a GED. Six are enrolled in college now. The program teaches students life skills, professional business practices and vocational skills through apprentice placement with mentors at local businesses.
The YES! 21st Century project, a summer program designed to improve math and reading skills of third through fifth graders, helped 97 percent of participants improve their math skills in 2011, while 20 percent improved their reading skills. More than 150 youth have been served in this program.
"Everybody is elated," said Sutton. "It shows the hard work of ECU, the center, the community. All the hard work came together."
The dedicated staff at the center learned about the award from a text message from one of the center's founders and director of programs, Deborah Moody.
Moody, executive director Kerry Littlewood and others were in Denver on Nov. 12 to accept the award. Back home, cheers erupted as Sutton gathered everyone with the news. "There were a lot of high-fives," Sutton said. "It just amplifies what we're doing. We're so happy, so proud of the accomplishment."
Nate Talbert, who teaches afterschool students problem-solving and critical thinking with games and chess, said community members know they can come to the center for information and guidance on a range of issues, from health to finances. "If we can help you, we try to get our partners involved too. If we can't get it for you, we can try to find someone who can," he said.
"The center was chosen because it embodies the tenets of community engagement: reciprocity, mutual benefit, equal power and responsibility," Velde said. "It grew out of the belief that communities and ECU can transform communities and address complex issues when we work together."
The center was conceived by a faculty member in the ECU School of Social Work, the late Dr. Lessie Bass, and implemented by Bass and her colleague Moody.
'The community is in the lead'
The center is an extraordinary example of collaboration and partnership, said Dr. Tom Irons, who co-chairs the IGCC board with retired social worker and community member Gracie Vines.
"The secret is the community is in the lead," said Irons, associate vice chancellor for health sciences and professor of pediatrics in the Brody School of Medicine. "It's a constant ongoing communication. The university has learned to let the community lead and let the community engage in a meaningful way that is productive for both."
Irons congratulated Vines, Moody, Littlewood, Ruby Taylor, who is president of the center's quilters group, Human Ecology Dean Judy Siguaw, and ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard. "It's all these people who made it happen," Irons said. "It speaks to the real turn this university has made to honor its motto: 'servire.' "
ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard said the award is significant because it is national recognition for the university's mission and commitment to service. "Service and engagement are in our DNA at East Carolina University," he said.
Littlewood estimated about 75 ECU faculty members and 300 ECU students work and volunteer at the center each year.
"The center has many important relationships with just about every college on campus," said Littlewood, who is assistant professor of social work in the College of Human Ecology.
Her undergraduate and graduate students in social work engage community members to design programs and write grants to meet community needs. The grant proposals are presented in an annual Community Program Showcase event, where community members and partners vote for a student team that designs a program to best meet community needs.
Students in elementary art education in the College of Fine Arts and Communication work on art projects with youth. The Brody School of Medicine is involved in a study of African-American women with Type 2 diabetes and the center is an enrollment and screening site for the study.
"Having the center here allows the community to come together and learn from one another, build a relationship with each other and provide security and support for each other," Sutton said. "I live and work in this community so I know the positive impact it has on the community."
Seniors and youth support each other, for example, in the center's community garden, or with computer training. "It's amazing the connection. It's truly intergenerational," Sutton said. "When people speak of the community and programs, they are proud to say 'I'm a part of that.' "
One of the newest programs, IGCC Fit, is funded by Kate B. Reynolds Foundation for youth, adults and seniors. Sharon Mallette, clinical associate professor in the ECU College of Nursing, is at the center each Tuesday to provide health screenings or answer health-related questions from community members.
At the beginning of the fall semester, Mallette's community health nursing students helped with initial health screenings to collect information on people with risk factors so they can be monitored throughout the year. The program complements other health care services that clients already receive.
As a community health nurse and educator, partnerships are vital, just as they are at the center. "Being here provides us an opportunity to get to know members of the community, and for them to see ECU as a friend to the community and to help the community," Mallette said. "It's not just an ivory tower that sits to the east and west of the center. We want to be integrated in their daily lives."