Texas A&M Engineering SoundBytes

Just a SEC: Helping invisible Aggies through the REACH Project (featuring Max Gerall)

November 03, 2020 Texas A&M Podcast Network Season 2 Episode 14
Texas A&M Engineering SoundBytes
Just a SEC: Helping invisible Aggies through the REACH Project (featuring Max Gerall)
Show Notes Transcript

On this episode of Just a SEC, our student hosts talk community service and how to take action to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. Joined by REACH Project founder Max Gerall, they discuss how the Aggie-started nonprofit is supporting university service workers by weaving together all segments of the campus community and making "invisible Aggies," visible.

Drew DeHaven:

Community service is a great way to give back to the community and we all are looking for ways to make meaningful impacts where we live. But how can we, as students, actually do that? On today's episode of Just a SEC, Ritika and I are interviewing the founder of the REACH Project, an organization that is looking to do amazing things for the Aggie community. Today, we'll be speaking with Max Gerall. Max, take it away.

Max Gerall:

The REACH Project is a startup nonprofit here in College Station, Texas. We are 501(c)(3) recognized. We received that in 2018. And, to kind of put it simply, what we're looking to do is weave together the entire university community. We want to create what we call a self-sustaining higher education ecosystem. And the concept is to be able to empower students to give back to those in our community who need our help the most, and those are what we call the invisible Aggies.

Drew DeHaven:

Could you go into a little bit more detail on what an invisible Aggie is?

Max Gerall:

Most definitely. The invisible Aggies, in essence, are the essential workers on a Texas A&M campus, approximately 3,000 food service, custodial grounds, maintenance and security guards who maintain nearly 5,000 acres, feed almost 68,000 students and clean over 200 buildings on a daily basis. And the reason we call them the invisible Aggies is because they're such an integral part of our community, but, so often, we don't even see that they're there.

Ritika Bhattacharjee:

So, how did you first come up with the idea for the project or you and your team?

Max Gerall:

That is a great question. It all started my freshman year. I'm sure, like many other freshmen, I spent way too much time in Sbisa dining hall. Definitely an allure was the chocolate chip cookies. But the real reason I kept coming back is actually the front desk cashier, Ms. Melissa. Ms. Melissa, I call her my on-campus Mom. I like to say that she was the beacon of light that that led me through my undergraduate career. School was not really my thing. I got through it. It took me a while. But, you know, taking tests and waking up at 8 a.m. to go and study in the library wasn't, like, my preferred thing, but Ms. Melissa helped me realize how important it was and how far I had come and what opportunities would open for me if I just continued. And, so, Ms. Melissa is an integral part of my life. To this day, me and her are still really, really good friends. But there's one day specifically that really comes to mind when thinking about the genesis of the REACH Project and that was back in 2016. September 26, to be exact. And this is when Ms. Melissa introduced me to Ms. Hernandez. And Ms. Hernandez is the lady who cooks omelets at Sbisa Dining Hall. And she had been cooking the exact same and sausage and cheese omelet for me for literally years. And I had the opportunity to learn a little bit more about her. And, during this conversation, unfortunately, I found out that Ms. Hernandez was actually homeless. That her and her 10-year-old daughter were actually sleeping on Ms. Melissa's couch and had spent the majority of the semester couch-surfing other coworkers houses because earlier that summer, her mother passed away. And, when that happened, they were evicted from their home and couldn't really afford to buy another home in the area. And, so, this circumstance really shocked me. You know, as an undergraduate student that comes from high rise apartments with Apple computers, I didn't quite understand how someone who was taking care of me and taking care of so many others didn't seem to have anyone there looking after them or taking care of them. And, so, I really wanted to figure out is this like an isolated incident or is this something a bit more widespread? And so, working with Ms. Melissa and Ms. Hernandez, I spent the next, like, 18 months trying to meet as many invisible Aggies as possible and hear as many stories as I could. And, during that time, I met about 180. And it was amazing. It was so awesome. I heard the most beautiful stories of the Aggie Spirit. Like, for example, Ms. Irma. And Ms. Irma still works in Sbisa Dining Hall. She's worked there for 42 years. 42 years. Which is mind-boggling. But she's worked there so long that she actually met her husband on campus. Her and her husband got married, they had a child, and their daughter was the first person on either side of their family go to college and she went to Texas A&M, which was so awesome. But, unfortunately, while meeting these 180 individuals, we also heard some stories that were pretty shocking. And, so, it all really started from those stories and those experiences and learning just how difficult it was for who we call the invisible Aggies to come to work and to serve us on a daily basis. And that really inspired me to think introspectively and think, "Well, I'm a student, and I know a lot of other students, how could we, as students, give back to those who do so much for us a daily basis?" And that's where the REACH Project started. The idea of a high impact service opportunity, in essence, galvanizing students around an altruistic mission to give back to people in our own backyard, while giving them the opportunity to practice their soft skills and their technical skills. And, so, it's really been blossoming since then. We have the degree of focusing on affordable housing, but also education and soft skill development, not only for the invisible Aggies, but for students alike. And it's been an awesome journey. I have met a lot of amazing people, not only invisible Aggies, but university officials and city officials that have joined the team and are helping push the mission. And it's been a lot of fun learning a whole bunch along the way. Because as you can imagine, going fresh out of college and trying to start a nonprofit, it was quite the experience, but it's working out well. So I'm really excited about it.

Ritika Bhattacharjee:

That's really amazing. You can just see your passion coming through in all of your words as well. And it's inspiring to be able to hear that story and how that's developed. So one question I do have is, as you were going through and trying to find a solution to what you noticed was the problem you mentioned, where there was minimum wage being given to the workers. And it's still a common problem, and there's housing that's not affordable, what led you to develop the solution that you did? And could you describe that solution in a little more depth?

Max Gerall:

Most definitely. That's a beautiful question. And I love answering this type of question, because I think this is the most important part of the REACH Project. Nothing that we do is prescribed by someone else. You know, we go into our community and we listen. You know, that's the most important part that I have found, is listening to the needs of our community. And, so, we go into our community and we ask questions, and we just listen to not only their stories, but their barriers and their needs. And that's what really drives every step of the way. For example, we found out that about 65% of the invisible Aggies on campus do not have access to healthcare. So that made us realize we need to focus on healthcare. We instantly started working with the Health Science Center, we did pop-up clinics, we did a large health fair, if you will. But now we're actually developing a student-run health and wellness center that will be located on campus, run by students from the Health Science Center, directly benefiting the invisible Aggies. And, so, listening to the community is extremely important because nothing is worse than wasting your time and your energy setting up a program, going through the effort of designing it, and then no one using it, you know, and a way to combat that is making sure that that is something that individuals want to use. That concept of the health and wellness center and utilizing students to be able to provide these services is just the beginning. Our vision is what we call an affordable learning village. Again, that self-sustaining higher education ecosystem and create affordable housing. And within that affordable housing, we want to have services, educational services, medical services, social services, community development services built into the community. We spent a lot of time researching affordable housing across the region - Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana - and we found that the ones that are most successful are the ones that actually have those services built into the community. So, we want to take it one step further. Instead of just doing a kind of hands-off education opportunity, we want to provide a more recognizable, like a higher education experience. We want it to be an education heavy community. So, the idea is we have a transitional community where families will register for a personalized three-phase education. They'll start with foundations, GED attainment, English as a second language, and then progress all the way to homeownership. Steps of the way you will see personal finance classes, you'll see personal accounting classes, you'll also see some upscaling - the opportunity to increase one's wage and better their circumstances. So, hopefully, we can end that transgenerational poverty. And, then, by the end of it, the coolest part is, when they graduate, we'll partner up with a college of architecture student, and we will design the home that they will own and that they will live in. And, so, we are really excited - actually, yesterday, I had a meeting with department heads from the College of Architecture and we've actually identified some land and we're working on a proposal to approach the Provost office and see if there's a way we could actually get this micro-village underway and started pretty soon. And, so, I'm really excited about that. It's something that I think once we get the base, like, the foundation built here at Texas A&M, we could very easily take it to other land grant institutions and hopefully kind of counteract this outsourcing pandemic, if you will, that is kind of affecting college campuses across the country. And, so, it's a grandiose, massive vision that a lot of people think I'm crazy for, but it's starting to fall into place. And, so, I'm really motivated to make sure it happens and it comes to fruition and it looks like it might actually do that.

Drew DeHaven:

I absolutely love this plan. And it is incredibly exciting to think about. I think one thing that I like about it is that it seems to use the resources we have at Texas A&M in a really creative way, which is the students that are here in the first place. Like you said, bringing in health science students to run these clinics, bringing in architecture students to design these buildings. And, in a way, you kind of mention that part of the problem why housing is expensive is because the students, so it kind of sounds like this is a way that these students can use their skills to help give back. Can you touch on that a little bit and how the vision for that worked out and, like, how students can find practical ways to give back?

Max Gerall:

Most definitely. No, I agree. I think the coolest part is the weaving aspect; the way to connect students with individuals in our community that they might not have otherwise thought about. And I really like it because I think it helps build empathy. You know, I think something that a lot of times that gets lost in college is you're so focused on the task at hand - graduating, getting that job - that you miss out on a lot of really good opportunities. You know, when I was an undergrad, I was in a student organization, and I was the philanthropy chair. And I learned so much through my philanthropy position about giving back to the community, empowering my fellow organization members to learn and to practice those skills while giving back to the community. And it really seemed to resonate. You know, I think that one thing that's beautiful about this generation is we are a lot more empathetic, you know, we're much more socially aware, are much more willing to admit that, you know, things might not be perfect, but we can do something about it. And so I really like that concept. And the whole idea of learning with an altruistic mission, I think really helps cement those learning opportunities, you know. Nothing to me, back in the day, if you will, nothing was more boring than reading out of a textbook. Yeah, I learned a lot and it has helped me in my career path. But where I feel like I gained the most is actually having those hands-on practical experiences. So, in essence, we want to kind of take advantage of that paradigm shift that higher education is going under, using the benefit of the students and the resources that they have, the enthusiasm that they have, the love that they have and provide a better education model for them, but leverage that to really make a difference in our own community. And I think that that's something that speaks very loudly to students, and something that I hope will catch on everywhere we go. Because I think that this is a really cool model. And so I'm hoping that this is something that can empower students, you know, to make a difference, not only now but in the future and show them that really anything's possible. You know, there's so many ways to get involved, there's so many ways to get back, you really just got to put yourself out there and try and usually it will work out.

Ritika Bhattacharjee:

I think it's amazing that you focus on their stories, and you're able to empower them and almost put a bullhorn to their stories and share that with the rest of the world. I know that my freshman year I lived in White Creek, and there was actually a cashier who I spoke with every single day whenever I got my lunch, Ms. Rachel. And, so, she told me her story. And she was working there and she said that, yeah, Texas A&M has a pretty, like, they're very inclusive of allowing people to work on campus and she said she wouldn't really be here without that. And, so, I remember just sharing and hearing her story. And every day, that was the thing I would look forward to the most. Like, as a freshman engineer, I didn't know anybody else that was an Aggie on campus. And, so, she was the person that I talked to, and I still go back. I don't live in White Creek anymore, but I still go back to, like, Creekside Market just to visit her.

Max Gerall:

That's awesome.

Ritika Bhattacharjee:

And just to buy a candy bar or something like that.

Max Gerall:

That is awesome. I love that. That's so beautiful. And the cool thing is, you hear about that a lot. You know, there are a lot of students that have that first connection, that first connection to Aggieland through someone who isn't a student and isn't a professor, you know, one of these invisible members. And that to me is amazing. I love that. That's so cool to hear that.

Drew DeHaven:

One thing I want to lead off with is, since the focus is on community service and getting involved, what projects is REACH working on right now that students could hypothetically get involved in if they were interested in this program?

Max Gerall:

Most definitely. That's a great question. And first and foremost, before we dive into what REACH has got going on, one thing that I think would make a huge difference in our community and really have a huge impact is if, we as students, were a little bit more aware of the invisible Aggies in our community. You know, take that moment, that extra step, to say thank you, you know, to open the door for the custodian that is carrying the trash can, to go out of our way and say thank you for cleaning my dorm room for me today. Those little interactions are so powerful and are what make the Aggie Network so beautiful that that is I think the most important thing that we as students can do to impact our community. With that being said, the REACH Project has got a lot going on and we would love to have some help. First, we're partnering with BUILD, the student organization, to actually build our health and wellness clinics. And they're building those this semester and so there's always opportunities to get out there, get some hands-on experience building the containers or the health and wellness center, and also be able to be part of something that you can see the tangible return on campus. We also started a student organization called AgsREACH. It works very closely with the nonprofit and together we're hosting a plethora of events. So, as a student org, if you're a part of a student org or even if you're just interested in doing it yourself, the REACH Project is doing an angel tree this year. So, we're working with our invisible Aggie families, and we're hoping to help make their Christmas a little bit better. With COVID, the schedule looks different, you know, the last day of employment is the last day of classes, which is, I believe, the 24th to 23rd. What we want to be able to do is come up with gifts and donations to be able to help make ends meet and help provide those families with a holiday experience that they deserve. And so the opportunity to adopt a family, if you will, or adopt an angel and provide some presents and some holiday cheer, that would be truly, truly awesome.

Drew DeHaven:

Awesome. That sounds like some great opportunities. And I'll definitely be looking to get involved. I understand ya'll have a website and social media, would you mind sharing those links, so our listeners know where to find you on how to get connected?

Max Gerall:

Most definitely. So we do have a website, it's AgsREACH.org. It's a novice website, but it's it gets the point across and we're hoping to improve that as things go. So if there's anyone who's a website wizard, feel free to reach out. But our social medias' are also @AgsREACH as well. We have Facebook, we have Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn. We're working on all these platforms to make them better. Actually, we just launched a TikTok, too. TikTok's a little foreign to me, but the video I saw that they posted looked pretty awesome, so I'm excited to see what they come up with. But, again, those are our social medias. And there is one thing I forgot about the last

question:

We do have an internship program. Currently, this semester, we have 25 interns. Everything from social media to marketing, general communications, fundraising, community development. And, so, we'll be rolling out another round of internships in the spring. And we'd love to be able to have a cross-disciplinary group of students come in and help us advance our mission, so that there's one other way to kind of get involved.

Ritika Bhattacharjee:

Thank you so much for sharing, Max. Philanthropy is so important, particularly during this time when we are facing a global pandemic. If you want to get involved with the reach project, visit them at their website, AgsREACH.org. Or find them on social media by searching AgsREACH. Thank you so much for listening to this episode of SoundBytes, and we hope you have a great rest of your day. Stay safe and stay positive.

Hannah Conrad:

Thanks for listening to the Texas A&M Engineering SoundBytes podcast. The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the hosts and guests and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Texas A&M University System. SoundBytes is part of the Texas A&M Podcast Network. To find more official Texas A&M podcasts go to podcast.tamu.edu