After Sarah Jackson took her first service-learning course at the University of Georgia, she was hooked. Ten years later, she’s made a career out of service, community engagement and nonprofit partnerships.
“Through my geography major, I became involved in a bunch of service-learning courses, and I got to really apply what I was learning in the classroom into the real world in a practical sense,” says Jackson, a geography and Spanish minor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “It gave me confidence, new skills.”
Service-learning courses inspired Jackson to become a Public Service and Outreach Student Scholar, a year-long program that introduces students to UGA’s land- and sea-grant mission. During the spring, scholars complete an individual internship with a PSO unit that most corresponds with their academic and professional goals.
Jackson interned with the Office of Service-Learning, a partnership between the Offices of the Vice President for Instruction and the Vice President for Public Service and Outreach. The Office of Service-Learning supports the development of academic courses geared towards applying academic knowledge to the real world—a learning benefit for both students and the community.
In true service-learning nature, Jackson wasn’t just sitting at a desk. Along with another student, Jackson pioneered Campus Kitchen at UGA (CKUGA), UGA’s student-led, hunger relief organization housed at the Office of Service-Learning.
At CKUGA, volunteers collect surplus food from grocery stores and the university’s student farm, UGArden, and deliver them weekly in grocery bags or transform them into family-sized meals. CKUGA serves those at risk of hunger, who are often on the waiting list for aid programs like Meals on Wheels.
“We partnered with the Athens Community Council on Aging [ACCA] to identify clients and found out that over 70% in the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program were food insecure,” says Jackson. “It just seemed like a really big gap and something where we could really make a difference.”
Instead of returning to her home state of Ohio after graduating in 2011, Jackson stayed in Georgia and turned her internship into a full-time coordinator position. Within four years, CKUGA grew to more than 400 volunteers and helped reduce food insecurity of ACCA clients by 30%. CKUGA was awarded Chapter of the Year by the national Campus Kitchen Project in 2014 and became a focal point for service-learning classes in a variety of disciplines, ranging from recreation and leisure studies to public health to dietetics.
A key component of the CKUGA’s success was the introduction of AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTAs), who serve for either a summer or a year in nonprofits or Clarke County School District’s middle schools. The VISTA network is administered by the Office of Service-Learning, and Jackson became the first VISTA grant coordinator at the university.
“Partnering between VISTA members, UGA and nonprofits in the community, we had strong core partnerships where we could do program evaluation,” Jackson says. “With the university there, we had all the resources to say what we’re doing in theory seems like it works, and we can show we’re actually improving food security of our clients. We can measure our impact.”
Since 2013, the UGA VISTA network is committed to alleviating poverty. VISTA members help organizations reduce food insecurity, develop programming and otherwise assist low-income families. Today, there are 15 VISTA members serving in Athens-Clarke County and Barrow County.
“During her time at UGA, Sarah created meaningful, impactful, lasting change. She was able to develop herself as a leader and hone her skills in community partnership management and program evaluation,” says Shannon Wilder, director of the Office of Service-Learning. “We’re grateful for her efforts in leading both Campus Kitchen at UGA and the VISTA network.”
After earning a master’s in public administration from the School of Public and International Affairs in 2015, Jackson’s journey to combat food insecurity led her career to the Georgia Food Bank Association, which helps coordinate the efforts of Georgia’s seven regional food banks. As director of strategic initiatives, Jackson facilitated partnerships, secured sponsorships and created campaigns. It wasn’t long though until she found herself in a daunting new position: coordinating statewide responses during national disasters.
“When Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, I was placed in charge because my boss was out of the country,” Jackson says. “But we had never had a storm like that before. Irma hit all across the state. It was critical all of the food banks were communicating, sharing resources and plugging in with Feeding America, our umbrella organization.”
After that experience, Jackson began serving on the board for the Georgia Voluntary Organization Active in Disaster (VOAD), a coalition of relief organizations that help each other plan, network and stay up to date on relief efforts.
Everything changed when Hurricane Michael hit in October 2018. The fifth major hurricane to hit the state, Michael destroyed much of the agriculture industry in southwest Georgia with damages surpassing $3 billion, according to University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service and the Georgia Forestry Commission.
“Hurricane Michael was devastating to southwest Georgia, which had just been hit with tornadoes the year before. The agricultural damage was huge, and that’s the foundation of our economy. It’s kind of become a lost story—when people think recovery, they think six months after. No. It takes years just to go through all the cases.”
During Hurricane Michael, Jackson served as the point of contact between VOAD and the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency (GEMA/HS), the state’s response and recovery agency. When a Community Partnerships Manager position opened up at the beginning of 2019 at GEMA, Jackson’s role was reversed—she’s now the one at the state agency helping to coordinate response efforts with volunteer groups.
When storms aren’t brewing, Jackson will be traveling throughout rural Georgia to build infrastructure and create strong nonprofit partnerships. That way, when storms strike, communities are better equipped to deal with the damages.
For an out-of-state student who wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after college, the turning point was service-learning. Now, Jackson is making a difference in the lives of Georgians every single day—and she’s just getting started.
“My experience in service-learning is what made me who I am today and I’m so grateful for that,” said Jackson. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without that.”
Leah Moss Public Relations Coordinator