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Waubonsee Students Create New Websites for Local Nonprofit Community Groups
When Susan Burdette and Becky Neard Pearce started their class project to improve the website of an organization ministering to many of Aurora's neediest residents, they didn't think about turning their work into a budding small business.
But after seeing what they were capable of, the Waubonsee Community College students thought it might be a good idea to give it a go.
"The experience we got from working on this project at Waubonsee was huge and so important," said Burdette. "Without it, I, for one, would've been scared to death to try to do this.
"But now? I'm so much more confident in my abilities, and I have something to show potential clients that says, 'Here's what we can do.'"
In 2013, Burdette, 53, of Sandwich, and Pearce, 56, of Geneva, took part in what has become an annual tradition in Web design classes taught by Waubonsee Assistant Professor of Information Systems Amy Chaaban.
They, along with the other members of the classes, designated in the Waubonsee academic catalog as Web 230 and Web 250, dedicated a semester to redesigning and improving websites for local nonprofit organizations.
Chaaban launched the concept for the class projects in 2008, and in the years since, the projects have evolved and deepened - and the list of nonprofit websites transformed by Waubonsee students has only lengthened.
In the last five years, the websites of more than 30 non-profit organizations have been enhanced, thanks to Chaaban’s students.
The list of organizations that have benefited include those dedicated to meeting the basic needs of individuals and families stricken by poverty; those providing community recreational opportunities; those promoting diversity, historical preservation and literacy; those rescuing local dogs and cats; and those offering our communities’ annual festivals, among others.
Specific organizations that have benefited from the partnership include the Aurora Historical Society; the Batavia Interfaith Food Pantry; Aurora Hispanic Heritage Advisory Board; Greater Aurora Literacy Coalition; Starfish Animal Rescue; Hunger Resource Network; and Wayside Cross Ministries, among more than two dozen others.
The non-profit organizations serve local communities in Kane, Kendall and DuPage counties, including Aurora, Batavia, Geneva, Yorkville, Plano, Naperville, Villa Park and others.
Chaaban said the projects offer a "win-win" for all involved.
The non-profit organizations get an upgraded website with all of the potential benefits that accompany it, including increased visibility, a professional appearance, and enhanced site visits and donations - and all without impacting their budgets.
And the students working on the project receive a host of benefits, as well, Chaaban said.
"This is more than just about helping a non-profit," Chaaban said. "It gives our students real-world experience, of working on these sites, handling issues that might arise.
"It's the experience of what it is like to actually work with others in a small Web development company."
Burdette and Pearce found themselves both working on the website for Aurora-based Wayside Cross, which provides services and support to help area residents escape substance abuse, homelessness and other social ills, and meet basic needs of some of the region's poorest residents.
The students, who had known each other from previous classes together since they both began attending Waubonsee in 2011, said the experience with Wayside Cross was instructive to them in many ways.
Pearce had come to Waubonsee after 22 years out of the workforce to gain new skills needed in modern workplaces.
Burdette, a single mother of five, including two teenagers still living at home, said she had come to Waubonsee to pick up some new skills with the ultimate goal of being able to quit her career as a child care provider and gain greater lifestyle flexibility working for a longtime friend who owned a Web development company out of state.
And in the last two years, the women have achieved their goals, with each honing a particular set of skills in graphic design and writing code.
"I was somewhat familiar with Wayside Cross," Pearce said. "But this turned out to be a tangle to unravel, just so much information to make sense out of."
The students finally handed over the site to Wayside Cross in January, after working on the project since the spring of 2013.
Birnie Harper, Wayside Cross’ Coordinator of Annual Campaign and Business Development, said the students’ work was remarkable.
He noted the new site includes several improvements, including buttons on the homepage allowing people to request help and allowing instant online donations.
“We’re thrilled to death to have this done,” Harper said. “It’s so much nicer than what we had.”
He said without the students’ work, Wayside Cross would likely have been unable to afford such a site.
Burdette and Pearce said they were gratified to help an organization like Wayside.
But as the weeks stretched into months working on the Wayside project, the students said they learned skills that will help them as they begin to pursue their new careers, going beyond the technical prowess that can bend a computer to their will.
“It’s important, as we see now, that you get a go-to person from a client organization, who has final say,” Burdette said. “And you get that up front, in writing.”
Pearce said they also learned valuable skills in the art of negotiation and group dynamics – skills difficult to pick up in a classroom.
“Everyone has an opinion,” Pearce said. “And I may have an idea that I think will work best, but we found ways to find solutions that would work best for them.”
They said the hard and soft skills learned will serve them well as they launch their new venture, WebSolutions, a “collective” of freelance web designers working together to each lend their particular strengths and skills to projects of varying sizes and complexity.
Chaaban said such experiences underscore the point of the website design projects, as they not only broaden technical and academic skills, but also develop “a community of engaged learners and teachers,” able to cooperate and network in ways they could not before.
“One group may not have a certain ability needed for their site, thus they ask other students in the class,” Chaaban said. “Amazing how networking has evolved with my current and former students.
“It really is an awesome offshoot of the non-profit work.”