Community partnerships are a lot like community gardens. Both require thoughtful care, communication and sustainability. For UW-Madison seniors, Helena Record and Jacquelyn Laitsch, they are one in the same; a combination that also requires cows. Four to be exact.
When a Ugandan village found the soil in a local community garden lacked proper nutrients, they looked for answers. With a protein deficiency among community members, cows’ milk for the people and manure for the plants offered the perfect solution.
“They were the ones who originally communicated that this was a need,” said Laitsch of community members in the village.
With community partners in Uganda, Laitsch and Record launched The Cow Project: Transforming Ugandan Agricultural Practices and received a Wisconsin Idea Fellowship from the Morgridge Center for Public Service to make the project a reality. Wisconsin Idea Fellowships are annual awards given to undergraduate student projects working towards solving challenges identified along with a community.
The Cow Project involved a long-standing partnership between the Village of Lweza, Uganda and the Village Health Project (VHP). VHP is a UW-Madison registered student organization and 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the mission of supporting sustainable projects in Lweza.
This Wisconsin Idea Fellowship helped add four cows to the community garden in the Village of Lweza. The added livestock resulted in collaborative efforts among UW students and community members to build a structure for the cows to live in and an efficient way to collect waste for fertilizer and fuel.
Record, a neurobiology major, and Laitsch, a community and environmental sociology major, are both enrolled in the Global Health Certificate program at UW-Madison and serve as co-directors of the VHP student organization. They first traveled to Lweza during their summer field course experience for the Global Health Certificate.
Laitsch and Record spent the summer working in the community garden and tending to community partnerships. “We’ve built a relationship of trust and open communication to the point that sometimes we propose a project and they say no we don’t want that,” said Record.
Lweza did want cows, however; so Laitsch and Record took action. The applied for the Wisconsin Idea Fellowship and received necessary funding and resources to make this solution a reality.
Despite both growing up in America’s Dairyland, this project was admittedly out of their comfort zone. “To be honest, before the project I knew nothing about cows,” said Laitsch.
After their second summer in Lweza, they not only knew more about cows but also where to put them. A cow crown is a cement structure with a slanted floor meant to house livestock and safely collect waste which can then be used as fertilizer or fuel.
Record and Laitsch spent the summer building a cow crown with community members, but they hoped their work would continue beyond the first structure. “We’re looking to teach people how to build cow crowns for themselves,” said Laitsch. Since many residents of Lweza sustenance farm, every aspect of the community garden offers solutions for them to take home.
With sustainability in mind, the project is also meant to help improve conditions of unemployment, poverty, and malnutrition among women and youth in the village.
“The first time I went there, I was in awe of the women in the community,” said Record, “By how strong and warm they are.”
Just like the community garden, the community partnership between Lweza and university students and professors continues to grow. James Ntambi, PhD, biochemistry professor and faculty mentor for this Wisconsin Idea Fellowship shares the importance of The Cow Project to this long-standing partnership, “The cow project is a critical link to improving the viability of the one-acre farm being created in Lweza.”
Now back in Wisconsin, Laitsch and Record anticipate the harvest season in Uganda to learn if the garden is seeing improved crop outputs. But the students have already seen so many benefits from this partnership.
“I think with a lot of these types of projects, you go in with the desire to help but then you learn they help you just as much,” said Record.
Community partnerships are a lot like community gardens. With the proper time and care, you can receive as much as you give.