UVM's participation in the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium connects classroom discussion of poverty to real work combatting it

It’s a hot summer day in downtown Atlanta. Ali Watson is picking vegetables in a garden oasis to be sold at a farmer’s market in a poverty stricken area of the city. A few miles away at a homeless shelter fellow UVM student Kahlia Livingston is caring for the babies of young women who are living there as they learn new skills in hopes of a better life.

This summer has been like no other for Watson and Livingston, who lived together in an apartment in Atlanta while serving as UVM’s first interns of the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty. Audrey Kreiser, a secondary education major, also interned in Brooklyn at CitySquash as an academic enrichment intern helping young people from economically disadvantaged households fulfill their academic, athletic, and personal potential.

“This experience has opened my eyes to the many factors that play a role in people becoming homeless,” says Livingston, a political science major. “A woman came into the shelter who was my age and it struck me that we’re all just a few paychecks away from being in her shoes. Many of my clients acknowledge that they made bad choices in their lives, but don’t always realize the role that institutional oppression plays. I learned about that in class, but they live it every day.”

Since joining the consortium in 2016, the College of Education and Social Services has worked with other member institutions to integrate a rigorous classroom study of poverty with tailored summer internships. Interns learn about the multiple dimensions of poverty by spending eight weeks with agencies that work to benefit impoverished members of society, while serving alongside individuals seeking to improve their communities.

Internships vary depending on the mission and location of the organization. Kreiser was one of only three staff members resposible for 30 children. "It was all hands on deck," says Kreiser, who did everything from drive a twelve-passenger van from the Bronx to Bay Ridge, inventory classroom and squash materials, contact parents, and deal with a "constant onslaught of low-level middle school emergencies." "The best part about the program is the level of commitment everyone makes. The kids would often refer to CitySquash as a second family, which is something my supervisor and coworkers really take pride in."

Livingston’s internship with the Atlanta Mission, a Christian-based nonprofit ministry serving metro Atlanta’s homeless population, has put her in direct contact with the more than 1,000 homeless men, women, and children that the organization serves each day. She spent time at each of the mission’s four locations – two of which are devoted to men and two to women and children – that offer emergency shelters, rehab and recovery services, vocational training, services, and transitional housing.

Livingston’s daily work included working at the front desk of the men’s facility checking-in clients; collecting survey data; sorting clothes at an in-house store where women can select outfits; and caring for children while their mothers take classes, do laundry, or perform other tasks as part of their “make progress” stage of the program. “I came in with a lot of fear and anxiety, but I became more comfortable after talking with a lot of clients and hearing their stories. These people are homeless and I'd ask them how they are doing and they’d say ‘I’m great.’ I couldn't beleive how positive they were even in serious crisis.”

Watson, a nutrition major, interned at the Atlanta Community Food Bank that procures more than 60 million pounds of food and groceries each year and distributes it to 600-plus nonprofit agencies serving families in Atlanta and north Georgia. She worked primarily on the Community Gardens Project helping build, restore and harvest community gardens for families who don’t have access to fresh produce. She also lead volunteer groups at project sites; managed a non-profit campaign that tracks the amount of fresh produce donated to homeless populations; taught cooking classes; and sold produce at the WIC Farmer’s Market.

“It's been a phenomenal experience,” said Watson while collecting potatoes at a community garden not far from the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. “You hear and read about all these problems like food insecurity and food access issues, but a lot of it is based on stereotypes, so to actually see it first-hand has been a real eye-opener. It’s very cool to see how happy these children are when they learn about different plants and vegetables and to see their mother’s learning how to cook healthy food for them.”

For more information on the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty and the summer internship program, contact Alan Tinkler, Internship Director, at alan.tinkler@uvm.edu.


Jon Reidel
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Kahlia Livingston unpacks clothing at the Atlanta Mission where she spent her summer helping people staying at the homeless shelter