That understanding led her to participate in the Meadowood Program,
an extensive special-needs initiative with full-inclusion classes, in
middle school. “Ryan had taught me to see kids in the program for who
they were — kids,” she said.
In Nelson’s first year at the AAP’s Wilmington campus, she enrolled
in Prof. David Teague’s course, LEAD 100: Leadership, Integrity, and
Change. That fall, the class partnered with the YWCA Home-Life
Management Center, a facility in downtown Wilmington that helps families
in economic crises, to help build a community garden.
AAP faculty and students worked with staff and residents of the center to build the New Beginnings Garden
in spring 2018. But the garden faced significant challenges in its
first incarnation: not enough sunlight; poor-quality soil. Downtown
Wilmington is known for being a “food desert,” and the garden’s
initially low yields were disappointing.
Nelson, however, was determined to make the garden a success. She
recognized that it was much more than just a source of healthy food — it
also offered a place of healing for the Home-Life Management Center’s
residents, many of whom were victims of domestic abuse and other trauma.
Nelson had years of gardening experience from volunteering with the
Delaware Nature Society, and she put that to good use, enlisting five
other AAP students and making major changes.
After months of hard work, the New Beginnings Garden that Nelson
worked to redesign had its own new beginning. By July, the garden had
yielded more than 60 pounds of produce, with more on the way. Residents
at the YWCA center helped to maintain the garden, and parents were
surprised to see their children suddenly excited about eating the
squash, peppers and tomatoes they had helped to produce.
The successful team effort that brought the New Beginnings Garden
into existence laid the foundation for further collaborations, too. The
site is now home to several beehives,
tended to by AAP students in Prof. Dan McDevit’s ecology course on
local ecosystems, and Wilmington’s entrepreneurial-leadership students
now package and distribute the honey to local nonprofits.
At the beginning of the fall 2019 semester, Nelson undertook an
independent study project at the Delaware Center for Justice, a
criminal-justice reform institution in Wilmington, and worked alongside
the director of the School Offense Diversion Program. The program works
to help students who have been funneled into the juvenile justice system
at a young age, often for minor, nonviolent offenses. This phenomenon,
which drastically increases the students’ likelihood of reincarceration
as both juveniles and adults, is often referred to as the
Nelson worked to document, via a podcast, the experiences of Delaware
students caught in the pipeline. She hopes to continue this work in the
future, creating in-school diversion programs that resolve conflicts
before students are charged — “reimagining the school discipline process
to work for kids, not against them,” she said.
She has presented her findings to the Wilmington Civic Advisory
Council and the Louis Redding Consortium for Educational Equity. The
data she has gathered has influenced strategic planning at the Delaware
Center for Justice.
The personal accounts that Nelson has documented in her podcast have
the potential to effect lasting legislative change, and she says she
will continue to make sure that these voices are heard. “These are the
kids I grew up with,” she said.
Nelson’s capacity for empathy has found additional creative outlets
since then. In fall 2019, she worked with fellow Wilmington AAP student
Nada Abuasi to compose a voice-over poem for a video documentary
produced by Daniel Mpilo Richards, visiting artist at UD and the A.I.
DuPont Hospital for Children, chronicling the experiences of the
hospital’s pediatric patients.
Nelson has personal insight into that world: In high school, she was
diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that can
cause a multitude of health problems, from hypothyroidism to potentially
fatal neurological complications. While her condition is now well
managed, she still clearly remembers her experiences with the illness
and wanted to give a voice to children dealing with their own health
As she prepares to transition to UD’s main campus in Newark for the
fall 2020 semester, Nelson looks forward to further work with the
northern Delaware community.
“I have chosen a communication major with a minor in journalism so I
can advocate for others who are unable to advocate for themselves,” she
She has the support of UD President Dennis Assanis in doing so.
“Maggie has emerged as one of UD’s exceptional student leaders in the
field of community engagement,” Assanis said. “Her ability to understand
and honor experiences outside hers and her passion for providing
concrete opportunities and voices for people inform her academic
preparation to use investigative journalism to create change.”
Article by Associate in Arts Program staff; photos courtesy of Maggie Nelson
Published May 11, 2020