Article by Ellen Johnson | Photos by Allie Newman and Madalynn Young
Many University of Alabama students and Tuscaloosa-area residents live unaware of problems facing children in their own community. Students in Susan Daria’s APR 419 class are working to change that – and raise money for the cause at the same time.
The public-relations majors use their skills to increase awareness about childhood hunger and gather donations as part of Secret Meals for Hungry Children, a program that discreetly provides West Alabama schoolchildren with food packages for the weekend. Alabama Credit Union created the program in 2008.
Since the class began partnering with Secret Meals in 2011, APR 419 Public Relations Concepting and Implementation students have raised $83,411.64 for the program, feeding more than 600 children in West Alabama every weekend for an entire school year.
Students raised $10,696.63 in Fall 2015 alone, enough to feed 77 children every weekend throughout a school year.
“When we realized what we had done and how much money we had raised, that was such a big moment for us,” says Emily Camp, who took the class in Fall 2015 and graduated in December. “It was almost kind of emotional because we started with nothing and then came out with all this money. It was such a joy.”Daria says she chose Secret Meals as the class client because most people do not realize how prevalent childhood hunger is and how little it takes to help a child in West Alabama. For $140 ($120 until recently), Secret Meals can feed one child every weekend for an entire school year.
A 2015 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found 27 percent of Alabama’s children live below the federal poverty line. More than a quarter of the state’s children face food insecurity at some point each year, according to VOICES for Alabama’s Children. Free or reduced-price school meals do not fill the gap these children experience on weekends.
Teachers identify needy children based on signs such as habitually consuming any food available and hoarding food as the weekend approaches. They slip food packages into the children’s backpacks while they are out of the room.
Every semester, students enrolled in APR 419 divide into four groups, and each group conceives, develops, promotes and implements a Secret Meals awareness campaign and fundraiser.
“I am amazed at the creative and unique ideas that my students envision and bring to life,” says Daria, instructor in UA’s advertising and public relations department. “Just when I think they have tried it all, they come up with even more unique ways to engage and educate the public about childhood hunger and make a positive change, locally.”
Campaigns and fundraisers have ranged from trivia and karaoke nights at restaurants and bars to fall festivals and bowling events. Students use the latest public-relations practices to devise campaign themes, create taglines and messages to support their cause, design promotional materials and publicize their campaigns and events on social media and in the community.
Elizabeth Plant, who took the class in Fall 2015 and graduated in December, says service with Secret Meals gave her skills she’s applying in her career.
“It’s beneficial because it’s real-world experience, but you’re not thrown out there by yourself,” says Plant, who now works for UA’s Tide Pride Ticket Office. “It’s the best experience I could have had right before I graduated and went out into the real world.”
Students also organize and implement all aspects of their fundraising events.
“It gave me a different outlook on not only what’s going on in the community, but on how, when you’re planning an event, you have to be prepared for anything because you don’t know what will be thrown your way,” Plant says.
UA students have reached their goals with every project, says Kelley Porter, marketing manager for Alabama Credit Union.
“The partnership between Secret Meals For Hungry Children and The University of Alabama advertising and public relations students continues to surpass our expectations and make a significant impact on the lives of children who live in our community and are facing food insecurity,” Porter says. “Our goal is not only to inspire the students to become passionate regarding Secret Meals, but to encourage them to become passionate about the Tuscaloosa community.”
For more information about the service-learning section of APR 419 Public Relations Concepting and Implementation, contact Susan Daria at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-348-3103.