UA students spend summers partnering with nonprofits in rural communities

By:    Date: 06-23-2014

New College initiative unites students with community organizations in Walker County, Alabama

BY KARLY WEIGEL  |  Photos courtesy Walker Area Community Foundation

BCooper and CLyons garden expansion edited

Interns Cameron Lyons and Bryant Cooper clear a site for a new planting bed as part of a garden expansion at West Jasper Elementary School.

For the past three summers, students engaged in an initiative directed by The University of Alabama’s New College have chosen eight weeks of service in rural Alabama over relaxation or trips to the beach.

Through the initiative, 14 students have lived in rural Walker County for two months and dedicated 3,000 hours to partnering with a plethora of community, nonprofit organizations, including groups focused on improving health and education.

“Institutions of higher education and local citizens are both rich sources of knowledge for addressing complex, socio-economic issues facing rural Alabama communities,” said John Miller, assistant director of New College. “The internship program engages these resources via mutually beneficial projects that teach students how to work with community partners to find effective solutions to community problems.”

During the spring semester, students enroll in NEW 490 Partners for Action and Research in Communities I, which is designed to teach students civic engagement principles, community-based participatory research methodologies, project development and other skills necessary for successful community-oriented problem solving.

During June and July, students commit 25 hours per week to working with rural nonprofits to conduct outreach projects with research components. In addition, students are encouraged to write grant proposals for their nonprofit partners seeking funding to sustain the projects.

In Fall 2014, students who interned in Walker County during the summer will bring their experience with community problem-solving back to Tuscaloosa, tackling projects aimed at addressing challenges on The University of Alabama campus.


Intern Lizzie Ernstberger, Capstone Rural Health Center nurse practitioner Lindsey Todd and clinic CEO Dr. David Jones in front of the health center’s community gardens Lizzie helped fund through a donation from a local business and a grant from a foundation

In 2011, the program’s first year, students partnered with the Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) of Walker County, the ARC of Walker County and
Jasper City Schools. The VOAD partnership stemmed from the April 2011 tornadoes that
struck Alabama, and through it, students organized the Long-Term Recovery Committee,
which developed a comprehensive response to future natural disasters. Students also developed a creativity camp for children with autism and a camp for kids who speak
English as a second language.

The following year, partnerships with the Walker County Coalition for the Homeless, the Soil and Water Conservation District, Jasper City Schools and the Shape Up! Walker
County initiative focused on community health. Interns promoted community gardens, education, access to nutritional food, exercise and healthy lifestyle practices.

In 2013, PARC interns partnered with Jasper City Schools, The Literacy
Council, vocational and agricultural teachers in Walker County schools, the McDowell Farm School and the Capstone Rural Health Center. Interns resided at the Black Warrior Council Boy Scouts Camp and attended dinners at local homes and restaurants.

Bryant Cooper, a senior majoring in business, partnered with the McDowell Farm School, a nonprofit focused on the health of Walker County citizens. “Walker County ranks next to last in overall health statistics when compared to all Alabama counties,” Cooper said.
“The McDowell Farm School seeks to educate students, teachers and parents on food, sustainability and the environment around them.”


Carbon Hill High School teacher Jeff Mohon and intern Jackson Harris review a master plan for the county’s seven agricultural education programs.

Cooper found that one out of every three Walker County residents is obese. In an effort to help the McDowell Farm School address this health problem, Cooper used $2,000 in grant funds from Whole Foods to develop a farm-education program and to expand local gardens.

Lizzie Ernstberger, a senior whose New College depth study focuses on public health, worked with the Capstone Rural Health Center, a nurse-managed health center in Parrish, Ala., that relies heavily on grant funding. “I had two primary goals for my partnership with the CRHC this summer,” Ernstberger said. “First, to increase overall financial resources through a variety of grant-writing endeavors and second, to implement clinical and outreach strategies within the existing patient network.”

Ernstberger raised $10,000 for the Capstone Rural Health Center Community Garden, which serves as a food bank for patients and community members. Funding came from a $9,000 pledge from Jasper Honda and a $1,000 grant from the Awesome Foundation. Ernstberger’s work will provide food for more than 500 people over 12 months.

Ernstberger also created a variety of promotional documents for the clinic. One is a brochure to attach to future grant applications, and another is a patient resource
guide focusing on nutrition and healthy lifestyles.

Jackson Harris, a sophomore with a New College depth study in community development, focused on agricultural education in area high schools. Harris worked to strengthen Walker County’s agricultural-education programs and its Future Farmers of America program. “After months of observing Walker County’s seven agriculturaleducation
programs, I am a firm believer that with strategic planning enacted over the next several years, Walker can become a model county for all technical education within the state of Alabama,” Harris said.


Intern Bryant Cooper at a news conference in which students introduced their partnerships and projects. Students in George Daniels’ JN 311 News Writing and Reporting course attended the event and wrote articles based on it, giving interns a chance to see a media interpretation of their work. –Photo by Alaina Clark

Cameron Lyons, a sophomore with a New College depth study in community development, helped create seven professional-development workshops for high school faculty in Walker County. Lyons conducted video interviews with key community members in order to include the voice of the local professional community in the workshop materials.

“These workshops are centered around improving literacy in the schools and will be mandatory for faculty members across all departments,” Lyons said.

To learn more about New College’s Walker County internship program, contact John Miller at or (205) 348-2642.