Department of Community Engagement grows programs, pantry


Photo by Joie Knouse

Written By Jordyn Hronec, Editor-Elect

The university’s Department of Community Engagement is rapidly expanding its programs to offer more opportunities to conduct volunteer work, as well as growing its efforts to address students’ basic needs.

Heather Starr-Fiedler, the chair of the Department of Community Engagement, said that one of the new developments within the department is the creation of the “First Fridays” volunteering program, which sends out students, faculty, staff and alumni to conduct volunteer work at different organizations throughout Pittsburgh. The first group of Point Park community members conducted their volunteer work on Friday, Mar. 6 with the Community Human Services (CHS) food pantry in Oakland.

“We ended up having a group of people, probably about 25,” Fiedler said. “Which was great, we really filled up the whole space. It was a really nice mix of faculty, staff, students and alumni, which was really our goal, to kind of do it as a team.”

The volleyball team was amongst the students who volunteered.

“My coach decided that we as a team would go and help, which I really liked,” Taylor Small, a freshman outsider hitter on the team, said. “Me and my teammate, Madi, bagged oranges and then handed out the bags when the center opened. The best part was being able to see the smiles of the people we helped.”

Fiedler said that the program started as a way to provide students with opportunities to volunteer beyond requirements in freshman City University Life courses.

“We thought we would launch this as a way, originally, to help students have a more consistent opportunity to volunteer in the community,” Fiedler said. “But then we talked to faculty, staff and alumni as well, so we thought it would be great to make it a team effort. And one of the wonderful things I saw on Friday was that one of our students sat next to one of our alums on the bus, and they were talking, and by the time we had got back to the university, they had exchanged numbers. And that’s really what we want, is to be able to have students make those connections.”

According to Fiedler, future First Fridays will include volunteer work with Beverly’s Birthdays, Family House, Friends of the Riverfront, Animal Friends and the American Red Cross.

In addition to the First Fridays program, an existing program through the Department of Community Engagement is also undergoing expansion. The Pioneer Pantry, which is located near the Point Cafe and serves students who face food insecurity, has recently obtained a refrigerator via grant money, and is thus able to provide students with perishable items.

“I’ve been wanting to expand our offerings for a long time, so we learned about this grant through the food bank that’s called a ‘need-based grant for pantries to expand.’ I applied for it back in January, and at the end of January, I got the email that said we were awarded the grant.”

Fiedler said that the refrigerator has been stocked with milk, cheese, eggs and some meat products. Fiedler also said the Pioneer Pantry also offers toiletry items to students, such as shampoo, soap and toothpaste, which were all obtained from the Greater Pittsburgh Area Food Bank, along with other food items, and that a “Pink the Pantry” effort was also underway to stock the pantry with feminine care products.

Any student is allowed to use the Pioneer Pantry and there are no qualifications that students must meet to order food, according to Fiedler. Students looking to use the pantry can submit their orders online at, and they will receive a text when their order is ready for pick-up. Students can also volunteer at the Pioneer Pantry if they wish by emailing Heather Starr-Fiedler ([email protected]) or stopping into the Department of Community Engagement’s office on the second floor of Thayer Hall.

Katie LaBelle, a senior multimedia major, volunteered for 20 hours in the Pioneer Pantry during the Fall 2018 semester.

“I realized how much privilege I have to not have to use the Pioneer Pantry,” LaBelle said. “I didn’t realize how many people actually use it and how helpful it is. It really made me put a lot of things into perspective, because I’ve personally never been food insecure. It was a very awakening moment.”

In addition to First Fridays and the expansion of the Pioneer Pantry, Fiedler said that the Department of Community Engagement is also focused on launching a “digital badge” program on LinkedIn, where students can earn badges for the LinkedIn profiles by doing volunteer work or taking community engagement courses.

“It will hopefully give students a little bit of a leg up when they go to look for jobs and internships,” Fiedler said.

Another way that the department is looking to address students’ needs is through textbooks. According to Fiedler, the Department of Community Engagement is currently partnering with both the university library as well as the Office of Alumni Engagement and Giving to grow and promote the library’s collection of textbooks.

“This is a way to get everybody access to books if they can’t buy them, by just walking over to the library,” Fiedler said. “So our job is really to just help communicate that and to organize a list of books between the bookstore and the library of what books are ordered and what books they have, and then let students know that they are available.”