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University group lands top prize to build community garden

CHAMPAIGN -- A group of University of Illinois students has earned a top prize from accounting firm Ernst & Young for their idea to build a community garden in Champaign.

The team of seven students has proposed to build a garden in Douglass Park near Booker T. Washington Elementary School. The students envision residents renting space there to grow food and the school using the garden for hands-on learning projects.

For the 2010 campus competition, called "Your World, Your Vision,' Ernst & Young invited university students from across the U.S. and Canada to develop and submit proposals in one of three areas: education, entrepreneurship or the environment.

The winning teams '” from the UI, University of Calgary and University of Maryland, College Park '”  were chosen from among 64 entries. Each team will receive $10,000 to launch the local program and will have an Ernst & Young staffer available to offer advice.

Now that the group has learned it has won the prize money, the students said they want to start talking more with people who live in the community about their ideas and feedback for the garden to determine if there are any changes they need to make to their plans, said Erin Harper, a junior from Tolono majoring in environmental biology.

The program, called "Sun, Dirt, Rain and Champaign,' currently encompasses three different areas: the community garden with rented plots; classes and a demonstration plot that will be used to teach area residents about growing food; and incorporating the garden into school activities going on at Booker T. Washington school. 

Students could not only learn about the science behind growing fruits and vegetables, but also about managing money and products by possibly selling produce, they said.

The UI students have been working on the project since last October. 

They hope to have the garden up and running by the 2011 school year.

The students said they saw the project as an opportunity to bridge the gap between the university and the community.

"Students on campus live in a bubble,' said Steven Heiss, a freshman from Long Grove studying accounting. "Just south of University Avenue is the engineering quad and just north is one of the poorest communities in Champaign,' he said. 

Not many students are aware that a few blocks north of campus live some residents who must line up at food banks to receive assistance, he said.

"We're trying to create a dialogue between the university and the community of north Champaign,' Heiss said.

The UI team includes Harper, Heiss, Cameron Blaydes, Sibel Leblebici, Victoria Ngo-Lam, Diana Rechenmacher and Jonathan Weisman.

A panel of Ernst & Young leaders evaluated the submissions and considered each one's effect on the community, the proposal's creativity and the way it is communicated.

"At the end of the day, this competition is a neat way for students to showcase what they're passionate about,' said Kara Della Croce, associate director of campus recruiting for Ernst & Young in Stamford, Conn.

Accounting firms sponsor a variety of case competitions on campuses around the country, and Ernst & Young wanted to something different, she said.

"It's a new way to interact with students,' she said about the competition, now in its second year.

"A program like this helps us brand the firm on campus as an organization committed to corporate responsibility,' Della Croce said.

The program also helps empower students and  encourages them to engage with their community.

By Christine Des Garennes/ The News-Gazette

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