“They have left us with a lot of good done in Walker County,” Paul Kennedy of the Walker Area Community Foundation said during the students’ final presentations to community members on Friday.
The county’s current ranking as Alabama’s least healthy was the catalyst for all of the individual projects that the students developed during their recent internship.
Their solutions for the problem ranged from establishing raised bed gardens in two area elementary schools to increasing awareness of the community garden already in place on Airport Road in Jasper.
One of the students, Laura Metcalf, said Friday that she plans to continue working with agribusiness teachers in the county’s high schools after she returns to Tuscaloosa so that residents in communities outside of Jasper can have access to fresh produce.
The students’ various efforts culminated in Saturday’s Garden Fest, which was organized to highlight the community garden and Walker County Farmer’s Market as well as a new health initiative called Shape Up Walker County.
During Friday’s presentations, the interns received praise from all of the local leaders who worked with them this summer.
Katherine Patton of the Walker County Soil and Water Conservation District said interest in the community garden has gone down since it was established several years ago.
After learning the basics of gardening there, some of the first renters established raised beds at home and no longer needed it. However, few new renters were secured after a box containing information about how to get a space at the community garden was lost and not replaced.
Patton said the UA students not only found a new sign to advertise the community garden but also weeded the overgrown plots and painted around the beds to make them more attractive to visitors.
“They have worked so hard, even in the heat that we’ve had this summer. I just can’t praise them enough,” Patton said.
Nancy Smith, a dietician associated with Shape Up Walker County, credited the students with bringing a burst of energy to an initiative that is in the early stages of getting established.
“With Shape Up, there have been a lot of great ideas, but it has been difficult to get those ideas pumped up and going. These girls have just ignited a fire,” Smith said.
Caroline Ivey, executive director of The Haven of Hope, called the students “a bright spot” at the new transitional housing facility, where they have been staying during their internship.
Ivey said that she has been amazed at the impact the group has made in a short amount of time on local residents who are working toward a better life for themselves and their families.
“I can promise you that the things that they have learned from these girls will be there for a lifetime,” Ivey said.
While all of the students had opportunities to interact with the shelter’s current residents, one tailored her project specifically around them.
Katie Jernigan said she tried to model healthy habits for the residents while also trying to address problems that affect their dietary choices, such as poor dental health because of lack of access to health care.
“Of all the lessons I’ve learned this summer, I would say the biggest one is to meet people where they are and try to understand the problem before making up a solution,” Jernigan said.
The UA students earned credit hours for their work this summer through the university’s New College, an embedded research-based internship program that launched in Walker County last summer.
Dr. George Daniels, a member of UA’s journalism faculty, said colleges are increasingly including community-based partnerships as part of their educational programs because both sides learn from engaging with each other.
“We as a university can’t operate in the ‘ivory tower’ anymore. There are too many things going on outside of that campus in Tuscaloosa that we can help influence for the better,” Daniels said.