Co-op for a better community

Vanessa Cerqueira (she/her), is a fourth-year Honours Arts and Business student majoring in Legal Studies. She shares how through her five co-op terms, she’s built conversational skills, found a home away from home courtesy of the Co-op for Social Good program and how she’s been able to give back to the community she grew up in.

Vanessa’s co-op journey:

Work term one: For her first co-op term, Vanessa worked at the University of Waterloo in the Department of Political Science as a research assistant. Her day-to-day tasks involved helping a professor revitalize an existing course and assist the chair with various administrative tasks.

Work terms two, three, four and five: For her next four work terms, Vanessa accepted a role at the Food Bank of Waterloo Region as a special projects assistant. Here, Vanessa moved through many facets of the not-for-profit organization. Within these four terms, Vanessa worked in marketing, fundraising events, administration and I.T.

Q&A with Vanessa:

Within an organization that is susceptible to change, what was it like to jump into every new position at the Food Bank and experience change internally?

Vanessa Cerqueira sitting at a desk with a binder, pencils and a waterbottle“That's a really good question. It was scary. Taking on marketing was totally outside of my comfort zone based on my limited experience with it in undergrad.”

“One of our staff members had just left to pursue another opportunity and we were in the midst of a massive summer campaign, "Full Bellies. Happy Hearts," which aimed to raise two million meals for children in Waterloo Region.”

“All of the e-communications that we send out all fell on my lap and I was tasked with learning how to send them out which was a huge part of the campaign. For a lot of the communications, the development team had to consider, what's happening economically at that time? Does it make sense with what the organization is saying and what’s being said by other stakeholders in the community? How were we as an organization communicating and making it clear that our numbers almost doubled every month, that sort of idea. Our story had to stick out within the context of the pandemic, where everyone was talking about economic peril, job loss, shortage of goods, etc.”

“We had to address the same issues but make everyone realize that the Food Bank is something to turn to in hopes of solving a problem. I had the task of using monitoring software to address key words, inspired by this idea, for our advertisements.”

Are there similarities to how the brand markets now that stemmed from that period?

“Yes, just the way they talk about things having to change in terms of the key stats we analyze and think about. It is no longer about finding different ways to communicate the same stats, as those stats are always changing.”

“When I started out in September of 2021, the stat read that within the Waterloo Region, one in 20 households were accessing food assistance throughout the region. We would always tell people to walk through their neighbourhood and count every 20 houses. That was the reality.”

“That stat grew to one in 14 within two years.”

“Hunger can strike anyone, anywhere at any time, circumstances can turn on a dime. Our goal is to provide support to those who need it. This period of time has been about addressing the increase in food insecurity and considering the other health aspects that accompany it.”

“The shifting focus of what we address, which remains to this day, relates to saying ‘Ok, these numbers are increasing and this is the impact that increase is having.’”

Vanessa Cerqueira standing under a tent, behind a table with cardboard boxes, holding a donations can.Would you recommend other students to work for a non-profit?

“As students, it's valuable to learn that those opportunities are out there. It’s a really good way for students to go and take advantage of those opportunities. I never would’ve thought during my undergrad that I would get to work at a charity and have the experience I’ve had.”

“All of my terms have been funded through the Co-op for Social Good program and it focuses on the social impact that charities can benefit from by having an extra set of hands that a co-op student provides. The innovative mindset that Waterloo students possess is valuable for any non-profit to have. My advice would be to just go for it, as it’s an amazing experience.”

What would be the biggest accomplishment you’ve achieved within your co-op terms?

Vanessa Cerqueira and a co-worker holding a Food Bank of Waterloo Region sign reading "THANK YOU!"

“There's been so many things. I think the most significant thing, however, is the number of meals I’ve helped raise to provide for people in the community.”

“Just being able to say that over four terms, we've helped ensure thousands of people have access to food - that for me honestly has been the biggest accomplishment of all.”

“The little things that I've learned as well as the skills I’ve picked up have been amazing too, but being able to help people in the community you grew up in, that’s a feeling and a sense of accomplishment that overtakes everything else.”


Is there a specific skill you’ve built within your roles that you want to master in your future career?

“Yeah, I know exactly what one I would answer that with. The biggest skill I've been able to build is being able to approach people that you don't know and confidently talk about what you're doing. Introducing myself and the organization is something I do regularly at the Food Bank. Companies and community groups will come in and we'll give them a tour of the whole facility as part of an engagement activity. My task is to engage with them and tell the Food Bank’s story as we’re going through the facility and activity.”

“I was terrified the first time I had to give a tour. By doing it multiple times a week, I’ve become more confident and comfortable with the information I provide guests with. I have become very engaged in conversations with different individuals about the work that is being done at the Food Bank and I think this is something that will be transferable into future positions.”

Vanessa standing with the Food Bank of Waterloo Region's mascot, both giving thumbs up.Would your time with the Food Bank inspire you to either construct or continue within a non-profit someday?

“I don't know that I would start my own not-for-profit, but I have a very soft spot for The Food Bank, they're very close to my heart.”

“Even when my term with them is over, my passion and advocacy for the organization does not end there.”

“The people who work there are honestly the most special group of people. I had one of my coworkers say it to me. ‘If you don't realize it now when you're done, it'll hit you and you'll realize the people that you're working with are a very special group of people that you don't find everywhere.’ I could understand what she was saying, but I don't think I fully understood it till recently.”
“I definitely will continue to be involved and engaged with The Food Bank in some capacity. I 100% could see myself, regardless of where I land in my career, finding a way to give back and engage with the organization. I want to see the Food Bank flourish, grow and be something that continues 40 years from now.”

What's next for you on this journey?

“So really, what's next for me, is two terms of undergrad. Heading back to campus in September and making the best of that time. I've taken on a new role within the Legal Studies Society as the 2023-2024 co-president.”

“Again, something I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to do prior to my co-op terms, but now there was no question I just said, ‘Yeah, I'm going to go for it.’”

“I’m really excited about all the events we’re planning this year and to take on that role. I am also excited to continue to be involved as an Arts ambassador and give back to the community.”

“Career-wise, right now I am looking at pursuing postgraduate studies in the legal field and seeing what the options are for me there and where it will take me. Those are the best-laid plans.”

Accepting roles in the non-for-profit sector is something a co-op student and the community they’re helping benefit greatly from.

For more information on how you can make a positive impact on a community, while building connections and career skills, learn more about the Co-op for Community and the Co-op for Social Good programs.

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