The groundhogs may have eaten their tomato plants last year, but the voracious rodents have not damaged the spirits of Nina Miller of Mount Clinton, Va., a sophomore majoring in agribusiness in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Miller is resurrecting a community garden behind Fieldstone Methodist Church in Christiansburg, Va. 

She and her volunteer horticulturists anticipate a new crop of fresh fruits and vegetables this coming summer.  The church will add the harvest to the food pantry items given away each week to residents in need.

“It’s a work in progress, and most of the grant money has gone toward purchasing soil for the project,” Miller says. One of the first winners of a John E. Dooley Student Engagement Grant, Miller was also able to procure a donation from 84 Lumber for the boards needed to replace rotted ones in the old garden. “Right now we’ve got snow, but we’re already looking at what needs to be done before spring, such as securing some fencing materials to keep the groundhogs out of the produce.”

The grants, named for the former vice president for Outreach and International Affairs who is now the chief operating officer of the Virginia Tech Foundation, encourage students to lend their talents to communities. Soon to enter its second year, the program, funded by private donors, offers $750 toward work on civic-engagement projects. Two Virginia Tech students or teams are chosen each year to receive grants.

Dooley, during his tenure with Outreach and International Affairs, tripled the number of Virginia Tech students studying and doing service work abroad and launched VT Engage.

"This grant program is the only one at Virginia Tech targeted to student-led community-engagement initiatives," says Gary Kirk, director of VT Engage. "The program is an opportunity for the university to encourage innovation and thoughtful program design among the community leaders of tomorrow."

Miller’s commitment has drawn both student and community volunteers who help tend 28 raised flower beds, where they've grown tomatoes and squash as well as herbs such as mint and thyme.   

“The project that Nina’s working on is a good example of engagement,” Dooley says.  “I believe that any way that we can incentivize and reward students for their extraordinary contributions to community is a worthwhile investment.”

Miller, who grew up on a farm, says the thought of people going without farm-to-table foods was foreign to her.

“I guess I grew up sheltered because I thought everybody had access to fresh fruits and vegetables. So just knowing that I am able to use my gifts to help somebody else is a great feeling.”

Deadline for students to apply for this year’s grant is March 28.

Grant winners will be announced at the annual Engagement Showcase and Awards held at the Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center on April 22.

Jill Elswick contributed to this report.