Peter CampoBasso, ’14, remembers well the first time he put a face on poverty in Richmond. A first-semester freshman, he was volunteering as a third-grade classroom aide at a public school through Build It, the University’s neighborhood-based civic-engagement program.

“One little girl was shaking every morning because she hadn’t eaten any breakfast,” CampoBasso said. “I felt powerless to help her. I’d tell her, ‘Let’s try to get through this next exercise and then it will be time for lunch.’” 

Determined to learn more about food access and its effect on student learning, CampoBasso volunteered during his sophomore and junior years with the Northside Family YMCA, another Build It partner. He co-led a team of UR students in planning and implementating a weekly interactive fitness-and-nutrition program for children in grades 3-5.

“The skills I learned working with the YMCA can’t be learned just from doing classroom assignments,” CampoBasso said. “For the first time, I was responsible for a large group of kids and coordinating the food, curriculum, volunteers, and group work. If things didn’t go well, it wasn’t a grade that got impacted, it was the kids.”

While volunteering at the YMCA, CampoBasso also began an academic exploration of children’s health and education through Children and Their Worlds, a Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) course.

“I had a light-bulb moment when Professor Mayes put up a map of New York City that showed the correlation between asthma and air quality,” CampoBasso said. “Asthma is the second leading cause for children missing school, and New York’s low-income neighborhoods had the worst air quality. 

“Okay, I thought, there’s work that can be done at the intersection of education and health, and I need to get involved.”

CampoBasso and three other SSIR students subsequently proposed creating a garden with the help of YMCA children to augment the education and health components of the fitness-and-nutrition program he coordinated. The YMCA board approved the plan, and in time the garden provided fresh produce and botany and nutrition lessons to children living in a neighborhood saturated with fast-food restaurants. 

“Through this process, I developed communication and people skills and learned about the city’s food policies, zoning, and food deserts,” CampoBasso said.

He also learned about cutting-edge education models when his SSIR class traveled to New York City to visit the Harlem Children’s Zone and a Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter school. Both nonprofits use innovative strategies to prepare underserved children to succeed in school and life. 

Inspired by the KIPP visit, CampoBasso applied for and received a Burhans Civic Fellowship to pursue an academically grounded internship with another KIPP charter school in Washington, D.C, in summer 2012. 

CampoBasso, a leadership studies major and education and society minor, gained a different perspective on education through the administrative work he did as a KIPP intern.

“You don't really know a third grader’s story just from working with him or her in the classroom as a volunteer,” he said. “Once you're in the office interacting with adults who know the children well, you hear about the many challenges these kids face.” 

Throughout his internship, CampoBasso and his faculty mentor, Dr. Nathan Snaza, examined how theories of poverty and education related to CampoBasso’s experience at KIPP.

This integration of academic theory and hands-on experience has been a hallmark of his college education, CampoBasso said.

“My education at UR would not be the same without the many community-based learning classes I have taken. It’s a much more interactive, engaging way to educate. How could I, as a future educator, have gotten the full picture if I hadn’t had these experiences in the community?”

Photo: From left to right, SSIR students Colleen Connolly, Peter CampoBasso, Kate Workman, and Mariah Williams stand by the sign for the YMCA's garden after receiving the YMCA board's approval to proceed with the garden project.