'Champions of Change'

by Janna Virden

In just a little more than a year after helping organize and open the Full Circle Food Pantry on the University of Arkansas campus at Fayetteville, Morrilton native Julia Lyon was shaking President Barack Obama’s hand for a job well done.

Lyon along with Rachel Pellegrino of Hot Springs, Mirelle Pierini of Maumelle and Sylvia Tran of Fort Smith were named “Champions of Change” as part of a White House sponsored competition to award student service programs across the nation. Lyon, an Honors student, was chairman of the pantry organizing committee.

The university flew the students to Washington, D.C., to attend an awards ceremony in March. Lyon said that they were all hoping to meet the president, but were not sure if he could attend. She said that 15 minutes before the ceremony was to begin, he arrived.

“I was shocked,” Lyon said. 

Obama spoke to the students before the awards ceremony. Lyon said the whole experience was just “overwhelming.” 

All this began when students on the university’s Volunteer Action Center Board were looking for a project to benefit others in need. Lyon said there was a lot of discussion on whether a food pantry was even really needed on campus. She said the committee began to “informally ask around to see if students could use help getting food.” They found many students just had enough money to pay their bills but not much left over for food.

After several months, the pantry opened at Bud Walton Hall in February 2011. Lyon said that first month not too many people applied for food, but in February 2012 the pantry filled 200 requests from students, staff and families on campus. Each request equals a three-day supply of groceries. In one year, the pantry filled 2,500 requests for food.

Last fall, the White House announced the “Champions of Change” competition and the U of A became a finalist through online voting with 57,000 votes being cast for the food pantry. It was one of the top five projects out of more than 1,400 submitted.

Students from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; the University of Chicago; University of California, Los Angeles; and Grinnell College were also honored as “Champions of Change” at the White House awards ceremony. Obama praised the students for their efforts and not giving up on their goals.

“Young people have always been at the forefront of movements of change. I am so proud of these students and their campuses for their innovative work to improve communities all across America,” said President Obama. “I hope their brilliant example will inspire Americans of all ages to come together to support an America that’s built to last.”

During the trip, Lyon and the other student food pantry volunteers visited with Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor and Sen. John Boozman. They also toured the White House.

“What an incredible opportunity to present the Full Circle program to universities and colleges across the nation. I hope that other campuses will be able to take our program and adapt it to their own campuses,” said Lyon. 

Because of the publicity around the White House competition, other universities across the nation have approached the Full Circle Food Pantry committee on how to start their own programs.

“We share everything,” Lyon said, adding that they advise other students to “get a mentor.” She said to find someone on campus or outside of the university circle that can help with the start-up of any program. She said her committee had a lot of help from Angela Oxford, director of the Center for Community Engagement for the university, and Jane Gearhart who volunteers at a local food pantry in Fayetteville. Oxford went with the students to Washington.

“The Full Circle Food Pantry has made me realize that even on a college campus there is a true need,” Lyon said. “This has brought tons of attention to our organization. Several people have brought bags of groceries to the pantry to donate because they’ve heard about us through the contest.”

In August, Lyon will attend UAMS to become a doctor, but she isn’t worried about the future of the pantry. She said the committee has already trained replacements.

“Thanks to everyone who has supported the Full Circle Campus Food Pantry. We never dreamed we would be invited to the White House as a result of this program,” said Lyon. “We certainly could not have achieved this without everyone voting as they did.”