Students volunteer time and talents at Ruby’s Pantry

Pictured left to right are Deb Putnam, Murphy Bleymeyer, Raiven Breseman, Clay Spooner, Sydney Williams and Valerie Gill, MSW, LISW
Pictured left to right are Deb Putnam, Murphy Bleymeyer, Raiven Breseman, Clay Spooner, Sydney Williams and Valerie Gill, MSW, LISW.

This fall, four University of Wisconsin-Platteville students had an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others by volunteering their time and talents at Platteville’s Ruby’s Pantry, a nonprofit, faith-based organization in Platteville that provides food for Southwest Wisconsin and surrounding communities.

The majority of people served by the pantry, located at United Methodist Church, 1065 Lancaster Street, Platteville, are food insecure. In the last fiscal year, the pantry served 2,603 individuals. Ruby’s Pantry pop-up pantries can be found throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota.

UW-Platteville student volunteers included Murphy Bleymeyer, a junior psychology major from Dubuque, Iowa; Raiven Breseman, a junior criminal justice major from Stevens Point, Wisconsin; Sydney Williams, a senior psychology major from Boscobel, Wisconsin; and Clay Spooner, of Albany, Wisconsin, who earned a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice from UW-Platteville this December.

The volunteer experience was part of the students’ Social Work with Communities and Organizations course, taught by Valerie Gill, MSW, LISW, instructor of criminal justice at UW-Platteville. Throughout the semester, students learned about various populations dealing with social issues such as food insecurity, homelessness, physical and mental disabilities, and domestic violence. As part of the course, they were required to conduct a community needs assessment project for a local nonprofit organization. Twenty students worked with six different agencies.

Bleymeyer, Breseman, Williams and Spooner chose to conduct a community needs assessment of Platteville’s Ruby’s Pantry. First, they researched the organization to determine the population it serves, treatment interventions, barriers for services and grant funding opportunities. Second, they volunteered with the agency, registering participants when they arrived at the pantry, distributing food, loading food into vehicles, etc. Third, they interviewed administration as well as participants to gain additional insight into the agency and those it serves.

After carefully reviewing the information they had gathered, students determined that Ruby Pantry’s most pressing needs were to raise awareness of food insecurity and increase publicity about Ruby’s Pantry and the services it provides. Keeping those needs in mind, students then developed objective, measurable goals for Ruby’s Pantry and presented their findings to the agency in a professional PowerPoint.

Students recommended that by the end of this fiscal year, Ruby’s Pantry would attain a 5% increase in the total number of participants served, measured by a monthly report, and give out two more scholarships to the community. They also recommended that by June 2020, the pantry would create a Facebook page with at least 200 followers. In addition, they suggested several ways to improve the registration process and recommended adding Ruby’s Pantry information to the university’s student resource page and course syllabi.

Impact of experience on Ruby’s Pantry

The students’ research and recommendations were greatly appreciated by Ruby’s Pantry staff and volunteers.

“Murphy, Raiven, Sydney and Clay did an excellent job presenting their recommendations,” said Deb Putnam, volunteer coordinator at Ruby’s Pantry and former assistant director of Dining Services at UW-Platteville. “The presentation was professional, accurate and precise. Each also gave their perspective of the overall experience and what they learned. Their suggestions for improving Ruby's Pantry were ‘spot on.’”

Putnam plans to meet with Mike Ernst, director of Auxiliary and Dining Services at UW-Platteville to discuss the possibility of adding Ruby’s Pantry information to the UW-Platteville student resource page. She said the registration process will soon improve, as Ruby's Pantry headquarters is in the process of switching to an online registration for all of its sites. She and other volunteers also plan to create a Facebook page specific to the local pantry.

“I really enjoyed working with the students, as did everyone they came in contact with,” said Putnam. “They were professional, organized and helpful, and they worked in each area of Ruby’s Pantry to understand what was going on. They are excellent representatives for UW-Platteville.”

Grant proposal

In addition to volunteering at Ruby’s Pantry and conducting a community needs assessment of the organization, students also wrote and submitted a $5,000 grant proposal to the Platteville Community Foundation for automated external defibrillators for Ruby’s Pantry. They also provided information about several other grant opportunities.

“In this process, students learned to negotiate, mediate and advocate for clients by assessing the appropriateness of interventions for the program,” said Gill. “The students also had the opportunity to see the administrative or macro side of an agency (or program) and how services and service providers are managed.”

“It is my hope that with empathy and compassion, students bring new perspectives to their future careers in the social work and criminal justice fields,” added Gill. “The practical experience they gained in grant writing, professional writing and presenting their findings to agency administrators along with cooperative group work will give them an advantage in the workforce.”

Impact of experience on students

Murphy Bleymeyer: My favorite part about this whole experience was talking with the participants we interviewed. It was awesome to see how this program has impacted them and their families. It also made me grateful for what I have in my life.”

Upon graduation, Bleymeyer plans to earn a Master of Social Work and pursue a career in the social work field. “This experience helped prepare me for my future career by giving me the chance to work with a variety of people while problem solving on how to make the organization better for everyone involved,” she said. “It also taught me about the organizations in the surrounding communities. If I were ever to have a client who was food insecure, for example, I would know that I could refer them to Ruby’s Pantry and to surrounding pantries.”

Raiven Breseman: “I enjoyed applying what I learned in class to the real world, and to have it make a difference. I really enjoyed being able to help our agency by creating goals for improvement. To see them actually use those ideas and goals we created felt really great. It was also a joy to work with the people in the agency; they were all so sweet and kind. This activity was the most enjoyable thing I have participated in at UW-Platteville, so far.”

Upon graduation, Breseman plans to pursue a career as a juvenile counselor. “Everything I learned from this project, from working with a group of individuals on a project, to professional writing, to working with agencies to assess their program, has helped me prepare for work in that field.”

Sydney Williams: “I loved getting to be a part of helping the community and spreading the word about Ruby’s Pantry. This experience helped prepare me for next year, when I will attend graduate school for social work. I really enjoyed working with Ruby’s Pantry and seeing the smiles on people’s faces when I handed them the food; just talking with them really made my day. Thank you for giving me this opportunity and for helping me prepare for my future.”

Clay Spooner: “This learning experience really opened my eyes and made me appreciate what I have. I never realized that so many people in Grant County were food insecure.”

Upon graduation, Spooner hopes to work for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. “The experience at Ruby’s Pantry really helped prepare me for this type of career,” he said. “I learned so much by listening to the participants share their stories. I gained experience in discussing and navigating subjects that are sometimes difficult to talk about.”

“I am very proud of the work from all of my students,” said Gill. “All six agencies had very positive feedback for my students, stating they were professional and represented UW-Platteville well. In particular, the students who worked with Ruby’s Pantry took it upon themselves to volunteer more hours to learn every aspect of the program and the people they served. They worked well as a group, were excited about Ruby’s Pantry and had a very positive attitude. Overall, the suggestions they recommended and the grant information were useful to Ruby’s Pantry and will be implemented. Social workers are often referred to as ‘change agents.’ Raiven, Sydney, Clay and Murphy certainly impacted change.”