By: Tiffany Whitfield

On Wednesday, December 20, 2023, graduate students and faculty in the College of Sciences transformed parts of the Chemistry Building into a winter wonderland for 21 children ages six to 14 from Portsmouth, Virginia. The youth who came to Old Dominion University were there to experience an event uniquely designed for them. These youth came from families facing homelessness, and Monarchs stepped up to make their holiday a memorable one with science at the center of the festivities. 

Jennifer Mejia a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry took the lead on planning this unique event. “Growing up, I witnessed the challenges faced by children living in poverty,” said Mejia. “A lack of resources and opportunities often dims their dreams, and the daily struggle for survival steals their focus.” With memories of seeing those less fortunate struggle both educationally and socially, Mejia seized the opportunity to illuminate science to students who rarely get to come to a college campus.

“So, inspired by the magic of holiday cheer and the power of teamwork, I envisioned a bridge between the two worlds of science and at-risk youth,” said Mejia. The festivities began with an out of this world experience. Justin Mason, director of the Michael and Kimthanh Lê Digital Theater and Planetarium guided the children through the universe virtually. Then, they moved to the chemistry success room and sat side-by-side with an ODU buddy STEM mentor, who was either a faculty member or a graduate student, throughout the day. They decorated sugar cookies together and resisted the temptation not to eat the icing. Next, they built their dream homes using Legos that were donated to the students. Then, they took pictures with Santa and crafted their very own snow globes and snowflakes.

Another treat was lunch that was provided by Aramark for each child and all the volunteers.

The holiday cheer kept going as Kory Castro, a lecturer in Chemistry and Biochemistry, led all of the students through a science demonstration. Students got to do hands-on experiments while exploring the states of matter.

Afterwards, the students went back to the Lê Digital Theater and Planetarium and watched a classic holiday film, “Frosty the Snowman.” Once the film was over the students came back to see the biggest surprise of the day, hundreds of toys laid out on tables for them. Each child got to select multiple toys to take with them, and their smiles and joy filled the room. There were so many toys left over that each child was able to take the additional toys to their siblings who did not get to attend this holiday event.

Lastly, before the students left, they were given another holiday treat, Aramark provided boxed meals for them to take home. The children needed their STEM buddy to help carry all of their toys, food and treats.

During the event, the children’s faces were alight with newfound awe. “Following their departure, the chaperones confirmed this, saying ‘that the children had developed a new insatiable thirst for knowledge and already wanted to know their next STEM activity’”, said Mejia. “The volunteers, their smiles radiating the joy of connection, their renewed sense of purpose palpable. In that shared space, the walls between scientist and child, between hardship and hope, blurred and began to fade.”

The students who attended the event participate in an after-school program called Coping to CODING. “We would like to express our sincerest gratitude for all of the hard work you all dedicated to ensuring the success of the winter program,” said Tamara Howe, director of Wellness and Family Engagement at Coping to CODING Team. “Your kindness and generosity have crafted enduring memories for everyone present, particularly our students.,” said Tiffany Nichols, director of Learning and Education at Coping to CODING Team. “We would love to bring the kids back to ODU again in the near future,” said Fitzroy Smith, Chief of Operations at Coping to CODING Team.

The teamwork that the College of Sciences students and faculty provided “was a testament to the unifying power of scientific pursuit,” said Mejia. “Despite many challenges we faced coordinating such an event, many volunteers worked tirelessly to make it a time that the children and volunteers would never forget.”

An event such as this could not have been possible without financial support. The local non-profit organization, “Break Up To Build Up,” Coping to CODING Team and Pat Hatcher, ODU professor and Batten Endowed Chair in Physical Sciences of the Chemistry and Biochemistry department sponsored the event. Many ODU and Hampton Roads businesses also contributed funds or goods, such as gifts or materials for the party.

Volunteers included graduate students and faculty and staff members from the College of Sciences departments of chemistry, mathematics and ocean and earth sciences and from the College of Engineering. In addition, volunteers from the local community, Aramark, Trio McNair Scholars, and staff in the College of Sciences dean’s office helped prepare food, organize decorations, transform the classroom into a winter wonderland and provide gifts for each child to take home.

Holiday Cheer Feast

Like many, I believe science is the engine of prosperity and critical to unraveling the obstacles that threaten humanity,” said Mejia. “In searching for solutions, I came up with the idea to throw a STEM-themed party where children in need could be mentored by scientists directly. In this way, children could revel in holiday joy while encountering the wonder and possibility of STEM fields, and scientists could share their passion to forge bonds with the next generation of scientific minds. Eventually, this could lead to lasting impacts on both communities and allow us to address many of the scientific challenges we face today and in the future.”