For the past three years, Aquinas Professor Mark O’Toole has assigned a special project to his fall classes. As they learn about the fundamentals of business, they also put those lessons into practice for a good cause: gathering donations for Mel Trotter Ministries, a nonprofit organization at the forefront of battling homelessness in Grand Rapids.

This year, two classes, one in management and one in marketing, were split into groups of three or four students and given the goal of each raising an estimated $10,000 in donations by the end of the semester based on a valuation sheet provided by Professor O’Toole. Each pair of jeans was valued at $35. A backpack was worth $20. Shoes could range from $25 to $50.

Before they began collecting items, the students took a tour of Mel Trotter Ministries facility on Commerce Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids.

“Seeing everything they have at Mel Trotter Ministries, I can't believe I passed that building a million times and I never knew what it was,” said Lucas Baker, a sophomore in Professor O’Toole’s marketing class. “Realizing how huge the space was because of how many people are staying there, you feel driven to help.”

Student smiling with huge bag of donations

The students were deeply moved by the visit, but $10,000 seemed like an enormous amount of money to raise in donations.

“At the beginning, we were all stressed,” said Alexander Rodriguez, a sophomore in the management class. “We didn't know how we were going to complete this task. So my group started meeting every Tuesday around 6 p.m. in the library to talk over what our plan was.”

Going Above and Beyond

Each group had its unique methods of gathering donations from reaching out to their networks of friends and neighbors to hosting in-person events. What surprised the students was just how generous their communities were, whether they were family or strangers. 

“People were really receptive when we reached out to them on Facebook,” said freshman Hope Terhaar. “Many of them were already getting rid of things at garage sales and were happy to give things away for a good cause.”

“I was packing carfulls of stuff pretty much every time I’d go to a house,” said Alexander Rodriguez, whose team also used Facebook to identify people who had items to give away. “I drove out to Paw Paw and Muskegon. The farthest I went was about an hour away. We’ve raised around $76,000 and we’re still updating our spreadsheets with 12 boxes to count.” 

Students smiling holding boxes in a classroom with more bags and boxes stacked in all directions

Allison Moore leveraged local connections she had made since she began classes at Aquinas. “I’ve been in a great group chat in the East Grand Rapids community with moms for babysitting,” she said. “Some of them went out and bought brand new items to donate.”

Social media was not the only way students found people. Some students talked directly to companies, like Gino’s Pizza, who offered Katrina Amrhein’s group discounts to be passed on to Mel Trotter Ministries to relieve some of the cost of food for people in need. Lucas Baker and Addison Vining’s group hosted a pie-eating contest. The entry fee was a pair of socks. 

Many student’s families were thrilled to help with the project, but for Carlota Arzabe Mecchia, that wasn’t an option. The other students in her group went home for Thanksgiving break and returned with bags of donations, but her family lives in Spain. She had to get creative. 

“I made a huge text message and sent it to everyone I know here and I had a lot of people reach out,” she said. That group was made up of primarily students from other countries like her. “They had host families who helped a lot. I raised more than $26,000 all by myself. I was so happy!”

A student pushing a large cart full of donations

Gaining Skills and Confidence

With truckloads of donations now making their way into the hands of people who need them, these two classes of Aquinas students are amazed by what they have accomplished. Using the skills they learned in their marketing and management classes with Professor O’Toole, what they thought was impossible is now a reality.

“Our class has grown significantly since the beginning of the year,” said Allison Moore. “People were like how are we ever going to reach this goal? And now they’ve surpassed it by thousands of dollars.”

Through this goal-oriented project, students were able to gain hands-on experience with time management, communication, social media outreach, data management, networking, collaborative work, and more—skills that are valuable in both marketing and management.

“It’s all about connecting with people—just putting it out there and letting people know what we’re doing and why,” said Kylie Serin. “What we’ve learned in class has definitely helped.”

Professor Mark O'Toole pushes a cart full of donations

This type of experiential learning is something embedded in many classes at Aquinas. Students can see the lessons they learn in the classroom in action in the real world. In  this case, they also have an immediate and direct impact on the community around them.

“I feel like we’re really lucky to do this,” said Allison Moore. “We’re giving back to the community. We’re working towards something that has meaning.”

While the donation drive by Aquinas students is complete for the year, Mel Trotter Ministries is always looking for donations, especially with the cold months ahead. Visit their website if you have items you are looking to donate.