Growing in community

UW-La Crosse student Solvei Stenso-Velo volunteers at a Mobile Seed Library during the Earth Fair Sunday, April 30, at Myrick Park. The experience was part of a service-learning project in her environmental studies course. Stenso-Velo plans to continue volunteering with the Seed Library even after her class. Photo courtesy of Vicki Miller.

Environmental Studies students partner with community organizations for service learning

UW-La Crosse student Solvei Stenso-Velo spent spring semester learning how to grow community from a seed librarian.

Stenso-Velo met weekly with Pam Gleason who runs the Seed Library at the La Crosse Public Library as part of a semester-long service learning project in her environmental studies class. She worked to extend community outreach about the seed library, which offers anyone free heirloom seeds to grow, save and re-share.

Students in the capstone seminar found mentors throughout La Crosse — from WisCorps to Villa St. Joseph’s greenhouse to the City of La Crosse. The mentors helped students complete projects that ultimately enhance people’s interactions with the natural environment.

Service-learning has been a component of the course for nearly a decade. Many students end up continuing the relationship with mentors through volunteer experiences, internships or paid jobs after the class ends, explains Alysa Remsburg, associate lecturer in environmental studies who leads the capstone seminar. Even if students don’t find a direct work connection, the networking from the course frequently leads to other job opportunities, she adds.

During the course, Stenso-Velo learned all about the Seed Library, located on the second floor of the public library. Anyone can check out heirloom seeds to grow healthy foods for free and then return seeds to the library after the harvest. The seed library is a joint venture with Hillview Urban Agriculture Center.

Stenso-Velo joined Gleason and UWL student MacKenzie Moen, volunteer coordinator at Hillview, in community outreach activities such as a seed swap and Earth Fair. Stenso-Velo saw local people sharing stories about gardening and getting excited about what they’ve grown.

UW-La Crosse student Solvei Stenso-Velo at the Earth Fair promoting the Mobile Seed Library. This semester Stenso-Velo had mentors from the La Crosse Public Library and Hillview Urban Agriculture Center to learn about the Seed Library. Lee Harwell Photography.

Gleason, a reference librarian, says community outreach is important to the library’s strategic plan of becoming the knowledge creation center in the community. Partnering with Hillview for the Seed Library helps with that community engagement process. The Seed Library is about more than growing plants and eating the harvest, she says. It is about sharing an experience with others.

“Heirloom seeds should tell a story and not stop once you harvest your crop. Imagine having seeds passed down through your family and the memories you made while planting, harvesting and eating,” says Gleason. “Just like seeds we all try to pass something on to the next generation.”

Gleason says Stenso-Velo’s mentorship experience was not just filling in time at the library. She was a meaningful contributor who jumped in and took an active role at the Seed Library.

“Knowing that we have a lot of food deserts in the area, this was the perfect tie between my public health major and environmental studies minor,” says Stenso-Velo. “You see how the seed library adds to the community. People learn about the environment while improving their health.”

Stenso-Velo plans to continue working at the seed library voluntarily even after the class is completed. And she’ll help bring the Mobile Seed Library to the Cameron Park farmer’s market during the summer.

Stenso-Velo says she was initially skeptical when she learned students in the capstone course would be seeking out community mentors, but the experience has shown her that community is an essential part of the environmental studies field.

“When I went to the Earth Fair, I knew so many people. That’s what I like about the environmental studies field. Community is so tied into it,” she says. “Doing this with others gives you a deeper level of satisfaction and a deeper understanding that you are contributing.”