People of Poultry Volunteer Profile: Taresa Chieng

As is so often the case with those that love animals, Taresa Chieng entered the U of A with hopes of becoming a veterinarian. Halfway through her degree, she changed her mind and was at a loss as to what to do next. She realized that she had no real community to fall back on, despite years of attending classes. It was time to break out of her shell and try something different. 

“I was really sheltered when I was in my undergrad,” explained Chieng. “I didn’t talk to anyone, and I didn’t make any friends or interact with my professors. I finally decided to take the plunge and try volunteering.” 

Chieng began her volunteering journey working with cows at the U of A Dairy Unit, helping Dr. Michael Steele with his calf research. The work was strenuous, the cows were large and after a few mishaps, Taresa decided that perhaps cows were not the best fit for her. Unsure where to go next, she sat down with her colleague Jo Ann Chew who convinced her to try poultry. The poultry community worked its magic again, and Taresa was hooked. 

Chieng had always enjoyed her animal nutrition classes and she decided to focus on poultry nutrition after connecting with Dr. Doug Korver. She finished her undergrad degree and began a Masters in Poultry Nutrition, a degree that she is currently working on with plans to defend her thesis in 2024. (Her team is testing novel ingredients to replace antibiotics in broilers.) 

In the meantime, Taresa accepted the position of U of A Heritage Chicken Program (HCP) Coordinator in January 2022. Supporters of the HCP pay a registration fee to support the U of A Rare Poultry Breeds Program. In return, they receive newsletters, educational opportunities and pick up a dozen delicious eggs from the heritage hens every two weeks from January until September. The HCP Coordinator manages the fundraising and educational aspects of the program and both grades and hands out eggs to the 500+ supporters. Although working part time while pursuing a master’s degree is incredibly hectic, Taresa’s passion for chickens and public education have resulted in a myriad of volunteer opportunities.  

Student Food Bank and the HCP

In the winter of 2023, an email was circulated from the U of A student food bank, desperate for donations as they were overwhelmed with clients. The HCP Steering Committee wanted to help and wondered if there was a way to donate surplus eggs from the program. 

Chieng and Poultry Unit manager Kerry Nadeau created a poster for the HCP subscribers, where people could sign up and pay $5 for a dozen heritage eggs to be gifted to students in need. 

“205 dozen eggs were donated, and we ended up donating a total of 434 dozen eggs to the food bank,” said Chieng.

There were challenges connecting the students to the eggs. Food bank volunteers would hand out a limited number of vouchers, telling students they could pick the eggs up at the south campus location with the regular HCP supporters. But, in the early days, no one came. 

“Students had a hard time getting to the south campus,” said Chieng. “So, we said, don’t worry about limiting the vouchers, just tell anyone that they can come and pick up eggs if they need them.”

That approach opened the doors and a wide variety of students started to show up for eggs.

“We saw so many different people, including a single mom with three kids who was trying to get her undergrad degree,” said Chieng. “I let her have as many eggs as she needed!” 

As the popularity grew, demand started to eclipse supply and Chieng and Nadeau needed to find another solution. After some sleuthing, Chieng discovered that the food bank had strategically placed fridges and snack stations around north campus for hungry students. She was able to claim a fridge in the Agriculture and Forestry building and fill it with eggs whenever she had extras. Students could help themselves as needed. 

The 2024 Heritage Chicken Program is currently accepting subscribers and once it gets off the ground and running in January 2024, the food bank donation program will start up again. Stay tuned for more updates!

Heritage volunteerism

The Heritage Chicken Program is always fundraising to keep afloat and Chieng and the supporters work hard to come up with interesting initiatives to raise funds. Supporter Tara Adam has created Heritage Chicken Charms for several years, designing beautiful blown glass and chicken themed pendants, garden stakes, earrings and more to raise funds. She donates 100% of the sales back to the program. Others have donated art, stained glass, quilts, crafts, ceramics and much more to silent auctions and other events over the years. Chieng organized a cooking class for supporters as well as chick art and donation baskets for both the Oilers and the Stollery Children’s Hospital fundraising events. 

In addition to Adopt a Chicken, the public can also support the program with the Adopt a Rooster option, where you can buy a subscription but pass on the eggs. And general donations are always appreciated and welcomed. 

Gift basket from HCP for Stollery and Oilers donations

Volunteerism and a love of Chinese Cooking

After moving out from home, Chieng realized that she did not know how to cook traditional Chinese dishes like her mother. She wanted to explore her Chinese roots and set herself the challenge of working through the Mooncakes and Milk Bread Cookbook by Kristina Cho. This delightful cookbook showcases classic Chinese baked goods. Extended family, friends, and barn staff all benefited from her quest, with copious platters of mouthwatering baked goods to share.

While honing her skills with this challenge, Chieng began to volunteer with her boyfriend’s sister, Pheap My-Patrick, who runs cooking classes and works with autistic and home schooled children. Working around her masters and HCP duties, Chieng would also help Pheap with her adult cooking classes on weekends.

“As I was teaching the home schooled and autistic children, I realized, if I can teach them how to cook, I can probably teach them a thing or two about chickens as well,” laughed Chieng.

Taresa Chieng and her chinese cooking challenge

Volunteer Teaching in the Classroom

Taresa was approached by teachers in the HCP supporter group to come to their classrooms and talk to the kids about chickens. Chieng approached the Alberta Chicken Producers for some chicken themed toys and swag, and fully loaded, she headed into the classroom.

She would present a mini course including the life cycle of the chicken, how they lay eggs, what they eat, and differences between heritage and commercial chickens. It was important to debunk misinformation, answer their questions and make it fun. Her presentations went beyond just chickens as well. 

“I threw together a short curriculum for the kids. I wanted to teach them that there are all kinds of options in life beyond being a vet or a doctor. Find something you enjoy and keep going with it. I enjoy chickens. And here I am.”

The kids loved the presentations and opportunities for Taresa in the classroom continued to grow.

U School

U School is a program run by the U of A Senate that began in 2009/10. It is rooted in the belief that university should be accessible to all students as a place to grow and learn. Inner city students and teachers attend a week-long immersion experience at the U of A campus, after choosing a theme such as science or agriculture. All of the sessions are offered by presenters who have a passion to share their discipline with the visiting students.

Dr. Frank Robinson originally taught the poultry unit for the U School classes, but after his retirement, he asked Taresa to step in. Chieng packs up her trolley of chicken themed information and fun and brings her materials to the north campus. The kids love her classes. 

“At the end of every class, they do journal entries, which the teachers send to me,” she said. “They are really cute and funny.”

Some journal entries from the kids about Taresa’s class.

“I like to use visual aids in my classes. We have a big anatomical model of a chicken that we call Kevin and lots of poultry related objects that the students can see and feel and touch. I often wish I could bring a real chicken into the room, especially when I taught a class that included visually impaired kids. Maybe someday!”

She has done at least ten of these classes. Recently, she got the opportunity to teach the teachers. 

“All the potential U School teachers for the following year came to south campus for a short class and tour of the facilities. The organizers wanted to show the teachers our working farm with hopes that they will share their experiences with their students.” (Biosecurity protocols, particularly with the avian influenza outbreak do not allow tours of the farm with large groups.) 

ELLA Classes

Dr. Frank Robinson approached Chieng to come in and speak to his Edmonton Lifelong Learners Association (ELLA) class about heritage and commercial chickens and the Heritage Chicken Program. 

“I already had the presentation prepared for the children and I was able to adapt it for this class, which was really fun. They had lots of great questions about commercial chickens and what eggs they should buy in the supermarket with all the choices of free range, free run, organic etc.”

“I say to them that buying Canadian is good enough. That the Canadian Seal is gold standard. I try to teach that to both kids and adults.”

Volunteerism and Final Thoughts

“When I was doing my undergrad, there was so much I learned about agriculture that I had never understood before,” mused Chieng. “ There is so much about agriculture on the internet that is just not true. By teaching these kids and adults, I can share the reasons why we do what we do, and open their eyes.”

“Milk doesn’t just come off the shelves. It comes from cows and cows have to be fed and cared for and it’s the same with chickens. I want to debunk a lot of the myths and I want the kids to learn and appreciate and love these animals in the way that I do.” 

“I love kids! I like seeing their eyes go wide as they learn new things. Understanding all the hard work that goes into producing our food gave me a much greater appreciation for where my food comes from and that’s the message that I want to share.”

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