By Stephanie Schupska, UGA News Services

As a UGA student, Haley McCalla was unaware of how pervasive poverty is in Athens.

Now, as an AmeriCorps Vista working with the UGA Office of Service-Learning (OSL), she sees it firsthand—and is able to help do something about it. She works with the Senior Hunger Coalition to help senior citizens get food, which many of them desperately need.

Older adults “get put to the side and not really focused on,” said McCalla, who graduated last year with a bachelor’s degree in health promotion and behavior. “I thought the VISTA position would be a great opportunity to do something new, and it turned out that I really love it.”

McCalla is one of five VISTAs working through OSL to bridge the gap between the university and the Athens community.

“By having the VISTAs as our ambassadors in the community and in neighborhoods, we’re creating more links,” said OSL Director Shannon Wilder.

AmeriCorps VISTA members have been compared to Peace Corps volunteers, except that they operate within the U.S. They spend one year working full time on a specific project at a nonprofit organization or a public agency like UGA. Their mission is to bring individuals and communities out of poverty.

UGA joined the VISTA program in 2013 with a three-year grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service, which is funding five VISTA positions each year.

The five—McCalla, Kelsi Nummerdor, Wick Prichard, Mary Schulz and Christine White—started their service projects in the spring of 2014 and are the second group of VISTAs at UGA. All five are working on food-related issues.

Nummerdor, who holds bachelor’s degrees in psychology and anthropology, is assigned to the Campus Kitchen at UGA, which is part of the nationwide Campus Kitchens Project, a network of university groups striving to reduce food waste and combat hunger. In Athens, that means reclaiming good food that would otherwise be thrown away and partnering with the Athens Community Council on Aging to deliver meals to hungry senior citizens.

Volunteers, who Nummerdor finds and trains, do most of the food preparation. She also coordinates schedules, plans events, arranges meal deliveries, checks on quality, keeps an eye on food safety and makes sure food is flowing into the kitchen at Talmage Terrace, a senior living facility in Athens, where it is cooked and packaged.

“I didn’t know anything about Campus Kitchen when I saw the VISTA job listing,” Nummerdor said. “But I love to cook, and I gravitate toward health psychology, more specifically nutrition, functional foods and medicinal plants.”

“There’s a lot of overlap in terms of what the VISTAs are doing,” said Sarah Jackson, the OSL outreach coordinator. “We’re trying to promote collaboration amongst the VISTA projects to create a stronger network of these different partners.”

Schulz is originally from Wisconsin. A love of urban agriculture—and family in Atlanta—drew her southward after she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a degree in community education and engagement.

She and White, a North Carolinian who graduated from UGA in 2010, are both assigned to the UGArden, a student-run, 4-acre farm that began four years ago.

Schulz coordinates and trains the almost 150 UGArden volunteers. She also works with the UGArden Club to make sure the garden remains student-driven.

“It’s inspiring to see how the program has grown in three years, supporting so many different people and so many different missions,” said Schulz. “The UGArden does a good job bridging the gaps between UGA and the community and the students.”

White is establishing a UGArden intern training program, focusing on teaching students as well as increasing vegetable distribution to low-income families in the Athens–Clarke County community.

Prichard has a similar focus in his job as the VISTA member for the Clarke Middle School (CMS) Garden. With a master’s degree in environmental planning and design from UGA, Prichard develops programs, such as the Clarke Middle School Kitchen Garden Corps, that enable faculty and students from CMS and UGA to use the garden as an educational resource.

“Being able to prepare meals from the food they had grown in the garden makes Clarke Middle students extra proud,” Prichard said. “In my opinion, this pride gives them the confidence to express their creativity.”

Both the UGArden and the CMS Garden provide organic food to those in need in the Athens area. The UGArden alone donated 1,200 pounds of produce to Campus Kitchen and other Athens organizations during June and the first half of July 2014.

“Not only are we teaching a lot, but the teaching is producing a tangible thing for the community—really good, healthy organic food,” Schulz said.

For more information on the Office of Service-Learning, including how to make a donation to the program, go to http://servicelearning.uga.edu.