Darlene Spracklin-Reid received the Outstanding Community Service Award at Memorial University’s 36th annual Alumni Tribute Awards ceremony last week.

Spracklin-Reid is an engineering professor and the founder of Together by Design, a not-for-profit organization that brings engineering students and trades people together to work on community service projects.

For the past eight years, Spracklin-Reid has been leading a team of volunteers to New Orleans to help rebuild homes that were destroyed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Her organization has also helped improve teaching facilities and accessible housing here in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Volunteerism has brought so much to my life; you have great experiences, you meet new people, you build strong relationships. There’s people I met in New Orleans who are like family to me,” Spracklin-Reid said.

Spracklin-Reid said engineering and trades students often don’t realize their training can be used to create positive change in the world. She founded Together By Design because she wants her students to recognize their expertise can be used to improve people’s lives.

“It’s very interesting to see engineering and trades students come to the awareness that they have a skillset that is quite useful for helping their communities,” Spracklin-Reid said. “That’s one of the things we want to instill in them – that you can use your professional skillset to reach out and give back.”

Last year, Together By Design helped the Association for New Canadians (ANC) convert an underutilized storage space into a classroom. Spracklin-Reid explained that the influx of Syrian refugees arriving in the province last year meant the ANC didn’t have enough classroom space to accommodate all of their students. As a result the organization was forced to hold language classes in their cafeteria.

The Together By Design Team were able to transform a storage space in the ANC’s Language Training Centre into a welcoming classroom by installing windows, dry-walling and plastering, and putting down new flooring. Spracklin-Reid said the language students would often drop by the space to chat while the student volunteers were renovating.

“The students found that project very rewarding because they got to meet a lot of the incoming refugees who would be using the space,” Spracklin-Reid said. “Having a personal connection with the people who are actually going to be using the space was really special for them.“

Spracklin-Reid believes her students learn more deeply from working with Together By Design than they would in a classroom because they know their work will have a real impact on people’s lives.

“You can give assignments and create fictional scenarios but it’s different when you have a real client who’s counting on you,” Spracklin-Reid said.

“When we’re down in New Orleans and we’re rebuilding someone’s house and rewiring it and they’re counting on us to do that because they’ve been out of their home for years and they don’t have any other way to get back into it — that’s when the students do their best work.”