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Empowering communities

Memorial students take top prizes at Social Innovation Challenge

By Susan White

From urban farming to a sustainable clothing line to a bakery that empowers youth, Memorial University students recently took top honours in a competition focused on making the world a better place.

The Social Innovation Challenge, hosted by the United Church of Canada in partnership with Memorial’s Centre for Social Enterprise and the Cochrane Centre in St. John’s, provides startup funding for social enterprises that have positive social, cultural or environmental impact while also achieving financial sustainability.

Bennett Newhook, right, won the Social Innovation Challenge recently with Greenspace Urban Farms. He's pictured with judge Bernadette Coady from Metro Business Opportunities.
Bennett Newhook, right, won the Social Innovation Challenge recently with Greenspace Urban Farms. He’s pictured with judge Bernadette Coady from Metro Business Opportunities.
Photo: Jazpyn Osmond

The top three prizes went to Memorial students.

Greenspace Urban Farms won first place, led by mechanical engineering student Bennett Newhook; Seaside Apparel and business student Trevor Bessette took second place; and Sweet Change and education student Kristian Butt nabbed third place.

Tackling food security

“We are absolutely thrilled to have come in first place,” said Mr. Newhook. “The recognition and community outreach that we have received has been tremendous. It has pushed Greenspace to allow us to develop our units faster for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.”

Greenspace seeks to improve food security in the province by using shipping containers and other post-consumer materials to create low-cost urban farms. Mr. Newhook says he’ll use the $1,500 prize for market research and developing the prototype farm.

“We hope that Greenspace can implement units in communities across Newfoundland and Labrador to lower the cost of fresh and local produce so that anybody can get the food they need at a price that they can afford.”

‘Confidence booster’

Mr. Bessette, a business administration student, says placing second and winning $1,000 is a “confidence booster,” but, more importantly, is an opportunity to further develop his business.

“It was such a great learning experience to get to talk with other social innovators and entrepreneurs in my community,” he said. “Over the course of the challenge, I received valuable input from my peers and mentors and I believe that Seaside Apparel has grown substantially.”

Seaside Apparel uses recycled plastic bottles and cotton scraps to create clothing that’s ethically manufactured in co-operative facilities. Some of the profits are also donated to the Conservation Corps of Newfoundland and Labrador for environmental education programs and green community projects, as well as to a non-profit called 1% for the Planet.

Mr. Bessette says Seaside also offers a take-back program to recover its products before they are discarded in a landfill and upcycles them into new products.

Sweet impact

Sweet Change engages at-risk youth at the Boys and Girls Club St. John’s to create, market and distribute baked goods, providing work experience for participants and helping fund programs at the club.

“This program gives them life experience, work experience and positive memories with their peers and mentors,” said Ms. Butt, who won $500. “The prize money is going to great use. We will be using the money to train the youth in food and safety and distribution of goods.”

Nine socially innovative ideas were pitched during the challenge, held May 12-13 at the Cochrane Centre in St. John’s. Three such competitions are being held across Canada this year with a further 5-6 community innovation challenges also taking place.

‘Hyper-local’ focus

Joshua Fernandes, community and event manager with Edge Network, the research and development arm of the United Church of Canada, says the church started the challenge as a way to reach younger generations.

“The current ways of doing church are in crisis,” he said. “They’re not engaging the post-Boomer generation, so those generations are hungry for connection and meaning and authentic community, and even spiritual grounding.”

“People who are in the community know most about their own situation.” — Joshua Fernandes

An added benefit is that each challenge is “hyper-local,” he says, providing solutions that have tangible relevance to each community in which it’s held.

“A nice theme that was completely new to me in Newfoundland and Labrador was the food security bit,” he said. “There were a couple of people that had some really interesting ways to respond to that. People who are in the community know most about their own situation, and given the empowerment and tools and outlet, [they will] respond to it.”

The Social Innovation Challenge was open to anyone in the community. Two additional prizes went to Etsy Vardy, owner of Pawsology, a not-for-profit organization that works with service dogs and people living with mental illness. Ms. Vary won the People’s Choice Award and Quadruple Bottom Line Award for an initiative that achieves a positive spiritual impact in addition to focusing on society, culture or the environment.

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