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NIU joins in White House Service Challenge

October 5, 2011

Where are you getting your next meal?

Some DeKalb residents don’t have an answer to that question. Thanks to a new NIU program, however, the hungry in DeKalb have an answer in a new set of allies; NIU students, faculty and staff who want to fight hunger in their own communities.

A homeless man sleeps on a bench in front of the DeKalb Post Office.

A homeless man sleeps on a bench in front of the DeKalb Post Office.

President Obama challenged higher education institutions to focus campus volunteer power on single issues in college towns across the nation.

NIU’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge organizers chose to fight the battle against hunger since more than 15 percent of DeKalb County’s population lives in poverty– a plight that remains largely invisible to the majority of well-fed local residents. County-wide statistics show that the majority of those residents living in poverty are children under the age of 18 and elderly people aged 65 and older.

NIU’s Campus Challenge organizers hope to provide those in need not only with nutritious meals, but also with the community support they need to improve their overall living conditions.

Andrew Pemberton

Andrew Pemberton

Andrew Pemberton from the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Information Technologies coordinated NIU’s proposal to participate in the challenge. The spirit of the president’s initiative is about people of all faiths finding common ground in service to others, he said.

“Serving others is a core value of all belief systems,” Pemberton said. “It’s a principle we can all agree upon. We’d like to see all students, religious and non-religious, find a way to participate in this worthy cause.”

The Interfaith Campus Challenge provides participants with service opportunities through partnerships with two local not-for-profit organizations: Feed’em Soup and the Voluntary Action Center. Both rely on support from the community to provide meals and meal delivery to those in need.

Volunteer participants will help with fund raising, food drives, and serving meals at Feed’em Soup and VAC. Student organizations will also be able to start their own independent fund raisers, food drives and awareness activities to help support the cause.

feed’em soup logoFeed’em Soup was founded by a small group of friends in the DeKalb/Sycamore area nearly two years ago. The organization is focused on ending hunger in the community, and has developed a strong following of registered volunteers.

Organizer Randi Kennedy has a simple explanation of the group’s purpose: “Our beef is with hunger,” she says. “We plan on bullying it out of DeKalb County.”

Working with Interfaith Campus Challenge, Feed’em Soup will be able to expand the number of people they feed. “Because we live in rural Illinois, our population is spread out,” Kennedy said. “That means the people in need are spread out. Working with NIU will give us the manpower and resources we need to reach out to these communities.”

That ability to build on existing momentum is one of the reasons NIU chose Feed’em Soup as one of its Interfaith Initiative partners, Pemberton said.

“Feed’em Soup is a young organization, but it is very focused in its purpose and understanding of the issue,” he said. “It’s more than a soup kitchen – it serves the whole person. It’s not just a place to get a free meal; it’s a place to have a good experience and connect with caring individuals.”

Voluntary Action Center logoBy contrast, the Voluntary Action Center has been a long-time provider of meals to the people of DeKalb County.

Best known for its Meals on Wheels program, which delivers hot meals to the elderly, disabled and homebound population, VAC also provides community dinners twice a month (alternating with Feed’em Soup) to ensure weekly meals are available to those in need.

Central to the Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge is the idea of bringing people together from different religious and non-religious backgrounds in service to others.

More than 20 student organizations have already signed up to  participate,  including Campus Crusade for Christ, Hillel Jewish Student Organization, Muslim Student Association,  the Baptist Campus Ministry and NIU’s multi-faith residence hall floor, the Journeys of Spirituality and Meaning Residential Community.

Angela Branson, director of Residential Student Learning and Leadership Development, works with students who have chosen to live on the faith-based residence hall floor.   The Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge is a natural fit for students in that residential community, she said.

“We’re becoming a more diverse country every day,” Branson said. “If you can get people together to do a service project, then they can discuss what their core beliefs are.  It’s a great opportunity for this group.”

Branson and Pemberton were among representatives of 250 colleges and universities invited to the White House last August to meet with senior government officials who are organizing the Interfaith Campus Challenge. Eboo Patel, president and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, was a keynote speaker, and talked about the importance of discussing faith in the context of diversity and developing leaders who value interfaith cooperation.

“In the end, this is about more than providing volunteers to a soup kitchen,” Pemberton said.  “We want to help students cultivate the habit of volunteerism and to see that impulse as something unifying across all faiths and backgrounds.”

To learn more about the Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge and the volunteer opportunities it provides, visit