“One of the great things about Princeton University is that any three or four students can get together and form a course. Isles, Inc. is a result of that… Our mission is to foster self-reliant families in healthy, sustainable communities.”
In the spring of 2009, over a hundred Princeton student-athletes, administrators and coaches were greeted with these words by Marty Johnson ’81, the Founder and CEO of Isles, Inc and a Princeton football letter winner. Sitting over lunch, Johnson painted an insightful picture for the group that detailed what it is like working in one of the poorest urban areas in the country that is located just 8 miles from the University.
That first meeting set in motion a partnership between Isles, Inc and the Princeton Varsity Club that has continued to grow over the past three years. To date, over 1400 service hours have been dedicated by more than 375 student-athletes, coaches, athletic administrators and Academic-Athletic Fellows from a wide cross section of teams as part of “Weapons of Mass Construction (WOMC).”
Each year, the Princeton Varsity Club meets with representatives from Isles, Inc to identify a day long project that will benefit the organization in the most tangible way. The initial collaboration focused on Mill One, a 6.5 acre site that is being converted by Isles, Inc into a mixed used, green village that will ultimately house offices for public interest and environmental organizations, a training center for inner city youth, as well as homes and artist studios. Volunteers had the opportunity to participate in interior and exterior demolition, painting, and landscaping.
Peter Farrell, the head coach of the women’s cross country & track and field teams, is one of the most seasoned and decorated coaches in Princeton Athletics history. His teams have won countless league championships and are continually nationally ranked. He has also participated in Weapons of Mass Construction every year, working side by side with his student-athletes. “You’re planting a seed for future involvement on behalf of student-athletes… The continuity is extremely important. Marty’s been doing this for thirty years down here [in Trenton], a Princeton student whose project became a realization and is here, helping the community. You don’t know which one of these kids will become another Marty Johnson.”
(View the 2009 Weapons of Mass Construction video at GoPrincetonTigers.TV by clicking here)
The second installment of Weapons of Mass Construction, organized in the spring of 2010 featured the creation of a 10,000 square foot garden that was formed to not only grow fresh vegetables, but as a way to teach young men and women about the importance of farming. The site for the garden is located right outside the doors of the Isles YouthBuild Institute in downtown Trenton and has been used as teaching tool for the YouthGrow teen gardening program that focuses on urban agriculture and ensuring that community gardens are available for the residents of Trenton to gain access to healthy food. Over the course of the year, participants in the YouthGrow program will receive 150 hours of instruction, with a heightened focus in the summer months.
Isaac Serwanga ’12 (football) helped to lay the foundation for the new garden, and did so working side by side with the young men and women who were enrolled in the YouthBuild Institute. “One of the things that I will take away from this project was the people aspect…They introduced all of the people we worked alongside with and we got to see what people are doing to better themselves, and how this is an opportunity for people to have a second chance to do something positive with their lives.”
Laura Martindale ’11 (ice hockey) noted the importance of taking part in a project that had a real impact on a neighboring community. “These programs are important because it helps us to step away from school for a minute and realize that aside from the books, and the studying, there are some very important things going on in the community and in the state that we are spending four years in… Being able to remove yourself from the academic setting and doing something that is valuable in real life to other people feels really productive.”
(View the WOMC 2010 video at GoPrincetonTigers.TV by clicking here)
The most recent installment of Weapons of Mass Construction was held in April of 2011 and focused on a return to Mill One. Volunteers were able to construct an urban farm, located just outside of the historic mill. Jim Simon, the Food and Environment Coordinator at Isles, Inc. has been involved with the planning of several installments of Weapons of Mass Construction. “Volunteer groups allow us to have a lot of diverse projects going on at one time and to be able to fill the demand for getting things done when we need to.” In total, 12 raised beds were prepared that will result in an estimated yield of 600 pounds of produce, according to Meredith Taylor, the Director of Food & Environment at Isles, Inc. The yield at the Mill One farm will include leafy greens, radishes, peppers, tomatoes, and carrots. Other produce will be harvested at the Tucker Street Garden (the site of the 2010 WOMC partnership) and will yield potatoes, watermelons and squash. Simon also noted that plans include adding a greenhouse and using the space to host demonstrations, composting workshops and capitalizing on the multi-use space for urban agriculture. Volunteers also cleared inside spaces that will be used as the future site of the Isles, Inc offices.
Maria Flores-Mills has served the University community in many ways, as the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students, as a liaison to the Prospect Street Eating Clubs, as a member of the Committee on Discipline and as the chair of the Residential Education Program. Dean Flores-Mills is also an Academic-Athletic Fellow for the men’s ice hockey team and football team, and a Weapons of Mass Construction participant. “I think particularly for student-athletes, their focus is so much about their academics and sports over the year that this represents a unique opportunity that otherwise might not fit into their schedules. It is another way for them to step outside of the Princeton bubble and to actually see some of their theories and class work in action.”
Brooke Russell ’11 (track & field and cross country) emphasized that even though student-athletes are only working on site for one day a year that the long term benefits of those hours will continue to be felt for years to come. “I find that a project like Weapons of Mass Construction is really unique, in that student-athletes are granted the opportunity to gain awareness of what’s possible, in terms of the way that we can interact with the community, and what changes we can make on a large scale.”
As the Director of Athletics, Gary Walters ’67 has shared his vision of “Education through Athletics” with all members of the athletic community at Princeton. “Being a part of Princeton Athletics is a privilege that carries with it great responsibility…a responsibility to represent your University and your team to the best of your abilities and in all that you do. That includes your performance in the classroom, on the fields of play, and in the community. Weapons of Mass Construction is a way for student-athletes, coaches and administrators who are so fortunate, to be able to continually give back, and to do so as a team united by the Princeton Varsity Club.”
(View the 2011 Weapons of Mass Construction video by clicking here)