OGDEN, Utah – Weber State University senior Patricia Erdman has seen much sadness in the past two-and-a-half years – a mother who did not know how she was going to feed her children, a grandmother who couldn’t decide whether to pay her electricity bill or buy food for her grandchildren. But just when they had lost hope, a knock on the door, a friendly face and an offer of bread lifted them up.
“Sometimes people just need to know they’re not alone in their struggles, that someone is there to help,” said Erdman. She, along with classmates, family members, friends, members of Lakeside Church in Syracuse, Utah, and other volunteers, has been that someone.
A Clearfield, Utah, resident, Erdman started a food distribution program in 2009 that has helped feed more than 5,000 low-income families in her community. For her service, Boston-based Campus Compact recently recognized her as a 2012 Newman Civic Fellow. She was one of 162 students nationwide who received the award this March.
The Newman Civic Fellow Awards recognize inspiring college student leaders who have demonstrated an investment in finding solutions for challenges facing communities throughout the country. The Fellows are nominated by college and university presidents.
The food distribution program began with an assignment from Gayle Speechly, the instructor for Erdman’s general education communication class.
“We were required to do a group service-learning project. Most of the groups had four students in them, but mine had five,” Erdman said. “Because we had an additional person, I thought, ‘Let’s do something big, something that’s sustainable.’”
The group decided to address hunger, a subject close to Erdman’s heart.
Growing up, she and her four siblings had two hard-working parents who, at times, struggled to make ends meet. “We never had material things, but we had each other. Sometimes we had to stretch our meals, and I worried if there was enough,” Erdman said. “I wanted to buffer my younger brothers and sisters from that kind of stress.”
Today, Erdman wants to buffer local children from worrying about hunger. “Right here in our community, in our own neighborhoods, there are people who have no food to eat. There are children who, unless they’re at school, go hungry. It kills me.”
To kick the project off, Erdman contacted Smith’s Distribution Center in Layton, Utah, to ask if the company could donate food. The answer was yes, on one condition: Someone had to pick the food up every night at 10 p.m. “It was a deal,” she said.
The distribution warehouse pre-bakes many bakery items – breads, rolls, pies – that are delivered to local Smith’s grocery stores, Erdman explained. “They bake them at the warehouse and test them for quality,” she said. “The ones they test cannot be resealed or sold even though they’re high quality, so they graciously give them to us.”
Erdman, along with her classmates and other volunteers, would take the baked goods to low-income families living in local apartment complexes.
“I didn’t have any requirements of the families. We just located the areas where they were living and delivered the food to them,” Erdman explained. “The people we met were not homeless, although some of them were teetering on the brink. They were trying but not quite making it. Some had recently lost their jobs. Some were grandparents who had suddenly found themselves taking care of their grandchildren. We never intended to be the answer to their problems; we just wanted to offer a bit of help.”
Erdman said it is hard to describe the feeling one gets while passing out food for the first time. “I felt disheartened. But when you see someone who was at their lowest of lows, at their wits’ end, regain some hope, you can’t help but be happy.”
When the group project ended, Erdman continued the food distribution program. For 18 months, she and others continued to make the 10 p.m. pickup at the warehouse. Smith’s then offered to give her a pallet of frozen bread and baked goods each week.
“With frozen food, I could get more in my truck,” Erdman said. “One shipment could sometimes feed an entire complex. I could also give the families more because they didn’t have to eat the food right away. They could store it in their freezers.”
Today, Erdman and a group of volunteers continue to serve low-income apartment complexes in the community.
As grateful as Erdman is for the Newman award, she prefers to call attention to the food distribution program.
“I really appreciate being named a Newman Civic Fellow, but in many ways I feel selfish,” Erdman said. “Without Smith’s Distribution warehouse, without Lakeside Church, without volunteers, this wouldn’t happen. By receiving this award and this recognition, I’m hoping I can take the program to the next level.
Erdman, who plans to pursue a career helping others as a nurse, hopes to include dairy, produce and canned goods in the near future.
“The need is great,” she said. “It takes guts to go knock on someone’s door and ask if they need help. Some people might think, ‘I can’t do anything to really help because I’m just one person.’ But if we all work together, we can have a huge impact.”
Campus Compact is a national coalition of more than 1,100 college and university presidents – representing some 6 million students – who are committed to fulfilling the civic purposes of higher education to improve community life and to educate students for civic and social responsibility. Through the Newman Civic Fellows Awards, college and university presidents acknowledge students with the ability and motivation to create lasting change in our communities. For more information, visit compact.org.
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