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From the Backyard Book Club to the Promise Partnership

Author: UNB Alumni

Posted on Jan 26, 2021

Category: Inspiring Stories , UNB Saint John


“Huge things can happen, even when you start with a small idea.” That’s what UNB alumni Dr. Leah Richardson (BSc’10), Dr. Taryn O’Neill (BSc’10, MSc’12) and Stephen Stone (BSc’10) say as they reflect on the 10th anniversary of UNB Saint John’s Promise Partnership, a program that sprouted from a summer book club and has evolved into a successful community initiative.

It all began when then undergraduate students Dr. Richardson and Dr. O’Neill came together with the idea to run a student-led summer literacy program in Saint John’s Crescent Valley. With a goal to ensure elementary children’s reading abilities didn’t regress over the summer, the pair met with former vice-president Dr. MacKinnon and, under his leadership, the Backyard Book Club was born.

Since that first summer, where a small group of UNB Saint John student volunteers gathered outdoors with children in the community, the program continued to evolve in their hands. In a short time, the book club soon relocated to campus, introduced interactive science activities and later grew to include opportunities for high school youth known as Book’n It Tutoring.

Even as the initiatives took on new names and faces, the impact it had on youth in Crescent Valley and at Hazen White-St. Francis certainly remained a constant.

“The university took our idea seriously from the beginning and that is what really gave us the momentum to move forward and run with it,” says Dr. O’Neill. “It had a huge impact on the students who were involved and one of the main reasons we moved them to campus was to normalize university and make it more of a reachable target.”

After graduating from UNB, both Stone and Dr. Richardson stayed involved as the program’s first full-time employees. They experienced the transition into the now established Promise Partnership, and witnessed the excited looks on children’s faces as they pulled onto campus to spend time with their mentors.

“We had no idea that it would actually grow to be multiple projects and continue for years.” says Dr. Richardson. “It was so much more than just a mentor program. It was giving the kids a friendship and a role model they may not have had otherwise. It was so nice to see that dynamic each day.”

“It went through a building period of making it a sustainable program, finding funding and creating the argument that this was a good thing for UNBSJ,” Stone adds. "I’m so glad to see that above all else it has found its footing and is sustainable now. The fact it has been going on for 10 years is a testament to how great the program is.”

Now having just wrapped up its tenth anniversary in 2020, the Promise Partnership has grown into an incredibly successful program that provides educational support and opportunities to youth in two of Saint John’s priority neighbourhoods. Today, many of the youth involved in the program have continued on to post-secondary studies.

UNB Saint John students who volunteer as mentors and tutors similarly gain invaluable skills and lessons that they carry through to their lives as alumni and professionals. And Stone is certainly an example of just that.

As a student he thought he would pursue a career in healthcare, but being involved in the program introduced him to his profession in community development and urban planning. As he currently works on a project addressing the housing needs in Crescent Valley, the whole experience has truly come full circle. 

“The program’s goal is to break down systemic barriers to educational attainment, but it also enriches the course for UNB students. It was a really humbling experience, and I think it stuck with all of us and our ability to have empathy and an awareness of the lived experience of those in vulnerable situations.”