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'Obsessed' with working for social justice

Published August 23, 2004; Category: STUDENTS

Heller '05 receives national award for service work

Rebecca Heller '05 has worked with AmeriCorps and taught English as a second language to single-mother immigrants in London. She has also  organized a hip-hop conference focusing on the construction of  identity and race relations, and created more than 1,500 meals for the hungry. Has she always been interested in community service?

Rebecca Heller
Rebecca Heller '05

"More like obsessed with it," she said. "And I'm interested in social  justice. I don't like the word 'service' because it sounds like you're giving help to someone else, and creates a power imbalance. I'm interested in activities as part of a larger structure to give equal access rather than me giving help."

As a result of her dedication to making the world a better place, Heller was one of six students who received the Campus Compact Howard  R. Swearer Student Humanitarian Award. She flew to Orlando, Fla., in July to receive the award at the National Education Leadership Colloquium.

At the recommendation of Dartmouth's Tucker Foundation, President James Wright nominated Heller last February to Campus Compact, a  Providence, R.I.-based national coalition of more than 900 university presidents who encourage civic work and service in the community.

Heller said she was surprised when she received a notification from President Wright last April that she had won the award.

"I kind of forgot about it - I assumed that I wouldn't get it, so it was surreal," she said. "I hadn't told anyone that I was nominated because I didn't think I'd win."

In Dartmouth's 10 years as a member of Campus Compact, Heller was the first Dartmouth student to be nominated, said Tracy Dustin-Eichler,  advisor to Students Fighting Hunger and the Volunteer Programs Advisor at the Tucker Foundation.

"She's a phenomenal student in a number of ways," Dustin-Eichler said.  "She is the model of an engaged student, showing how an undergraduate can wed their academic work and community service in a way that enhances both."

Heller and the five other award recipients were chosen from a pool of  more than 80 applicants.

"Rebecca is an extremely strong candidate," said Amy Umstadter of Campus Compact. "She rated very highly with each of her readers, for her very unique project and its connection with her academic work."

Heller's most prominent accomplishment is a project called Harvest for the Hungry. While it is now a division of Students Fighting Hunger, a group that addresses hunger in the Upper Valley as part of the Dartmouth Community Services at the Tucker Foundation, Harvest for the Hungry began as an assignment for an environmental studies class last summer.

 "We were just a group of 13 kids researching food security issues in  the Upper Valley, creating connections between local farms and emergency food to get more products to food-shelf clients," Heller said.

But by the fall, 80 volunteers were involved, collecting leftover produce from local farms to create meals. With the help of local caterers, who supervised the cooking and designed recipes, the group made 1,650 meals, including corn chowder, squash soup, baked apples and roasted vegetables.

Heller is expanding the program to include education, like basic nutrition and cooking lessons. The $1,500 she received as part of the Swearer Award will most likely be used for a community garden or cooking materials.

Heller, a government major, will be a Senior Fellow next year, working to improve community food security. (Senior Fellows are honored  fourth-year students who are allowed to pursue a year-long academic project without attending classes.) She will examine how some members of the community lack access to safe and culturally appropriate food due to pesticide residue, spoiling and malnutrition, and how that can be dealt with locally rather than nationally, she said.

Despite recognition for her work and the success of Harvest for the Hungry, Heller remains single-minded.

"There's always so much more to be done," she said. "The reward for my activities is knowing that next time, I can do it better."

By SHIORI OKAZAKI '04

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08