We CU Spotlight: Mini Grants Program

11/17/2021 12:27:16 PM

the exterior of several handmade cards
Illinois students have been sending handmade cards to seniors contending with loneliness and isolation. Photo credit: Z Brim 

When Emily Stone and Katie Shumway were connecting with colleagues across the University of Illinois to conceptualize We CU, they aimed to develop a program that empowers students to meet the needs of our local community and beyond. In addition to connecting students with service opportunities, they wanted to make sure students were equipped to address the wide variety of needs out there. They offered training to prepare students to approach service with intention, professionalism, and compassion. They also introduced a “Mini Grants Program.”

Shumway and Stone did not want small service-related costs to create a barrier for students who were eager to make a positive impact in our community. Having conceived of the idea in the months leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, they had no idea that the Mini Grants Program would enable dozens of Illinois students to make hundreds of much-needed masks for the community, create care packages for the dedicated health care workers treating patients in the midst of a pandemic, and send cards and letters to seniors through Letters Against Isolation (LAI).

While LAI was started in response to COVID-19, volunteers continue to address the loneliness and isolation among seniors that was a common issue even before the pandemic. Since being founded in April 2020, LAI has sent over 250,000 letters and cards to thousands of seniors in the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Israel, and South Africa.

Zaria "Z" Brim wanted to spark joy in others. They also found great joy in creating the cards. 
Zaria "Z" Brim wanted to spark joy in others. They also found great joy in creating the cards. 

Zaria “Z” Brim is one of dozens of Illinois students who have participated in LAI. Z is a senior in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences where they study psychology and African American Studies. This summer, Z created 48 unique cards, putting great care into each. Outside of each card, she created interesting designs with stickers and geometric shapes. Inside of each card, they included a joke, drew an image to match, and wrote a personal note to uplift and provide cheer to the recipients.

Z applied to the Mini Grants Program to cover the costs of the supplies needed to make and send the cards. “The mini-grant helped me in making my creative vision come to life” they explained. “I needed printer paper, construction paper, stickers, glue, envelopes, and postage for each set of cards I had to send to the elderly facilities and that began to add up quickly.”

Z is not alone. Purchasing stationery, art supplies, and postage is one of the most common uses of the Mini Grants Program to date, just after mask making. Students have also applied for mini grants to offset the costs of transportation expenses or fabric to sew blankets for Project Linus.  

The Mini Grants Program is designed to cover a variety of expenses that might otherwise limit a student’s ability to fully engage in service. Among some of the examples, students can use mini grants to cover the costs of printing, training to improve a volunteer skill set, conference and meeting fees, and other types of project materials. Program leaders will consider any expenses directly related to service. A student who is unsure can even seek advance approval for an expense by submitting a screenshot of their cart before placing the order.

For Z, being able to bring that creative vision to life was also personally fulfilling. “I was able to feel a greater sense of community and positivity. The cards I made not only spread joy to the recipients, but the action of creating them sparked a joy within me. A specific highlight for me would be the jokes I put inside each card—they were corny, yet very clever and cheerful,” she said.

Z's advice to fellow We CU students? “Get involved in a project that you’re passionate about and advocate for your needs to do the best service possible!”

To take advantage of the Mini Grants Program, please complete the Mini Grants Approval Form in GivePulse. Are there other ways We CU can help you to do the best service possible?  Email we-cu@illinois.edu.