Community partnerships honored at 2021 TOGO awards

The Underground Railroad Project at St. James A.M.E. Zion Church, the Foodnet Meals on Wheels program, and Khuba International and the Learning Farm received collaboration awards for partnering with Cornell to improve the lives of Tompkins County residents during the 11th annual Cornell Town-Gown Awards (also known as the TOGOs) virtual ceremony on Nov. 20.

Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer, also received a special Town-Gown award.

“I’m so grateful for our partners in every sector, including local government, nonprofits, neighborhood groups, businesses and of course, education,” said President Martha E. Pollack. “Our faculty and staff colleagues across our local school districts and at Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College, as well as their students, have done so much to keep us safe together, and moving forward.”

For a second year, the COVID-19 pandemic required this year’s TOGOs to be broadcast virtually.

 “The Division of University Relations is once again pleased to host this event that celebrates community-campus collaborations, as well as retiring elected and appointed leaders who have been at the forefront of so many shared town-gown successes in Ithaca and Tompkins County,” said Joel Malina, vice president for university relations.

Cornell’s 23,000 students hail from 50 states and 120 countries, and yet they are all residents of Ithaca and Tompkins County, said Marla Love, the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students.

“We are so proud of our students’ engagement in the greater Ithaca community through thousands of volunteer hours in fields of study that engage area residents on a year-round basis,” Love said.

The first TOGO collaboration award went to the Underground Railroad project at St. James A.M.E. Zion Church in downtown Ithaca, whose members worked with a team of Cornell students and faculty on an archaeological dig this fall at the church to better understand its role and history in safeguarding enslaved freedom seekers in the 19th century.

The Rev. Terrance King, pastor of St. James; Gerard Aching, professor of Africana and romance studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, and director of Cornell’s Underground Railroad research project; and Jehan Roberson, a doctoral student working on the project, accepted the award.

“This work really speaks to me as an opportunity to tell a story that recognizes the impossibility of fully knowing what freedom seekers experienced,” Roberson said.

A second award to honor partnerships went to Cornell’s Person-Centered Care Advocacy Team (PCAT), which teamed with the Foodnet Meals on Wheels program and other community organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic to support isolated senior citizens.

More than 20 PCAT student volunteers, including student leaders Sydney Mittiga ‘22 and Anushka Malik ‘22, helped senior residents make connections at a time when food drop-offs became contactless. For example, students taught older adults at Lifelong, a local support center for the elderly, and one of the partnering community organizations, how to use Zoom to interact with others.

The final TOGO collaboration award was given to Cornell’s Master in Public Health Program; the Learning Farm, which teaches children about local, sustainable agriculture; and Khuba International, a program that builds literacy around food sovereignty and supports underserved populations who wish to access land to grow food in upstate New York. Master of Public Health student Makayla Enchill designed a curriculum focused on the African diaspora and culturally diverse cooking for the students of Enfield Elementary School, a rural school in Tompkins County.

Opperman, who recently announced her plans to leave Cornell in June 2022, received a special TOGO award in honor of her 25-year Cornell career. The award recognized her “steadfast off-campus engagement with several community institutions and nonprofits, which over the years has included Challenge Workforce Solutions, Ithaca Area Economic Development, the Legacy Foundation of Tompkins County, the Paleontological Research Institution and the Ithaca College Board of Trustees,” said Susan Riley, Cornell’s deputy director of community relations.

Thirty-five retiring community leaders also received TOGOs.

Love; Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life; Patrick Mehler ‘23, Ithaca Common Council Ward 4 alderperson; and Kate Supron, campus-community liaison for Cornell Community Relations, were presenters at the event.

Read the story in The Cornell Chronicle.

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St. James AME Zion Church
Provided St. James A.M.E. Zion Church is believed to be the oldest religious structure in Ithaca and one of the first A.M.E. Zion churches in the country.
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