Niagara College culinary instructor Olaf Mertens accepts an Award of Excellence from Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop on Feb. 6, 2023. Photo credit: Niagara College
Niagara College continues to have an outsized positive impact on the Niagara community and beyond.
Earlier this week, college faculty and staff were presented with Minister’s Awards of Excellence from the province for two separate initiatives helping feed those in need and making education more inclusive and accessible.
At a ceremony hosted by George Brown College in Toronto on Monday, Canadian Food and Wine Institute chef and professor Olaf Mertens was presented with the Everyday Heroes award for spearheading Niagara College’s Feed the Community initiative. While a team of staff behind the college’s open-source digital Accessibility Hub was presented with an award in the Equality of Opportunity category for creating opportunities for marginalized and underrepresented groups.
“Niagara College is incredibly proud to see the extraordinary work of our staff and faculty being celebrated with a Minister’s Award of Excellence,” said Niagara College President Sean Kennedy. “The provincial recognition of Chef Olaf Mertens and the collaborative team behind the Accessibility Hub are shining examples of excellence in teaching and learning at NC.”
Launched in 2020, the Minister’s Awards of Excellence recognize the exceptional performance of faculty, staff, and graduate students from colleges, universities, private career colleges and Indigenous Institutes in Ontario who made a difference to the lives of students and their communities.
Last year, Niagara College brewmaster Jon Downing and staff members Gordon Maretzki and Amal Driouich were presented with Awards of Excellence for their respective contributions to economic development and pandemic response.
Niagara College’s two awards this year were among 22 selected out of more than 540 nominations received for 2021/22.
“I feel humbled and grateful, as it is not about being recognized but I hope to use the recognition to start a college wave or ripple effect to have others give to our neighborhood communities as our students apply their learning and skills,” said Chef Mertens, who won the Everyday Heroes award.
Led by Mertens, Niagara College’s Feed the Community initiative leverages the staff and resources of the School of Culinary Arts to address food insecurity and support health and wellness in the community. The program prepares, packages, and transports fresh, healthy meals to various people in need.
Since starting in 2021, the program has prepared and donated over 5,000 meals to area shelters and food banks, as well as the Ronald McDonald House in Hamilton on a rotating basis. Some meals have also been provided to students living in on-campus residences.
“This gives me the boost to increase the effect the program has and get more donations for funding and next steps,” said Mertens.
Enabled by a $230,000 grant from the Virtual Learning Strategy and launched in the spring of 2022, Niagara College’s open-source Accessibility Hub was designed to help both educators and non-educators build accessibility-first habits into all aspects of their work.
Since launch, the Accessibility Hub team has developed over 55 articles, checklists, videos, and resources with straight-forward recommendations for those seeking to simplify the creation of accessible web content, learning materials, and experiences for students or anyone with a disability. The stories of Niagara College students and recent alumni with lived experiences of disability are shared throughout the site.
“A great deal of hard work and collaboration was behind the Accessibility Hub, a testament to Niagara College staff and faculty who drive our continuous efforts to make inclusive teaching and learning a priority,” said Vice-President, Academic Fiona Allan. “It is thrilling to see their skills and talents recognized provincially.”
The Accessibility Hub has been adopted, adapted, and repurposed by several post-secondary organizations across the province to improve the accessibility of their professional communications, events, and courses.
Educational developer Whit Ross and web and digital developer Courtney Thaggard accepted the Equality of Opportunity award on behalf of the project team Monday.