By Harley Davis, Contributing Writer 

Walking into the Olsen Student Center, the building was buzzing with activity. Students, faculty, and community members all gathered for symposium day, where students would give short presentations of the work completed over the semester. A large number of people filed into CR 123, took a seat, and waited for the culminating presentation of Operation Giveback, a semester-long campaign to bring awareness to poverty in Franklin County.

Stephen Riitano, president of the Student Maine Education Association (MEA), stepped up to the podium and began explaining the impact of Operation Giveback. For this project, UMF’s Student MEA worked throughout the semester to raise awareness of poverty and provide relief for local families.

The campaign kicked-off in January with a panel discussion about poverty in Franklin County and the resources available to its citizens. This event was followed by a clothing drive and a performance by Maine comedian and UMF alum, Bob Marley. The funds raised through Marley’s show went toward Packs for Progress, an initiative which donates backpacks to local students in need.

Operation Giveback officially ended with the symposium presentation, but the effect of the semester-long campaign will continue on for much longer.

For Riitano, organizing Operation Giveback was an educational and eye-opening experience. “I think the biggest thing I have learned is how lucky I am for all the things that I have in my life and all the things I take for granted everyday,” said Riitano. “I learned that no one wants to be in poverty, and education is a way out of poverty.”

Operation Giveback was successful in providing goods to children and adults in the local community. Throughout the semester, the Student MEA was able to donate twenty bags of clothes from its clothing drive, while ticket sales from the Bob Marley performance raised over one thousand dollars. “I think if we helped one person or educated one person, then it was successful,” said Riitano. “I think the local community is growing more and more aware of the growing issues that are taking place outside the walls of campus.”

Moving forward, the Student MEA will continue striving to improve the community through the education of pre-service teachers. As their recent campaign  stressed time and time again, education is vitally important. “We are looking to bring a plethora of resources here to campus for pre-service teachers,” said Riitano. “Through our affiliation through the MEA we have access to many speakers and other helpful resources for professional development, those opportunities are priceless and they start now.”

While next semester will bring new students and new campaigns to clubs on campus, lessons taken from Operation Giveback will continue to inform the work of Student MEA. “My biggest takeaway was learning the impact that a group of like-minded people with a goal can make,” said Riitano. “It takes a village, but that village has to be full of dedicated individuals.”

The Student MEA is working to join with other on-campus clubs to give back to the community. For more information about future events from Student MEA, the club can be reached at umfstudentmea@gmail.com.

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