Cans Around the Oval: It all began with a class project …

"Cans" is the largest one-day food drive in Larimer County.
“Cans” is the largest one-day food drive in Larimer County.

A panty raid, a class project and a passion for helping others all came together 30 years ago to create one of the great traditions at CSU: “Cans Around the Oval.”

The iconic program, which has provided hundreds of thousands of meals to Larimer County’s hungry since 1987, is the largest one-day provider of food and funds for the Food Bank of Larimer County. It’s come a long way since its humble debut 30 years ago.

“I really can’t believe that ‘Cans Around the Oval’ is still going and that it has become so successful,” said Susan Johnson (BA Technical Journalism ’88). “It’s quite humbling, and I feel so privileged to have my name associated with it so many years later.”

Humble beginnings

Johnson – Trautmann was her last name at the time – wrote a paper for a public relations class in 1987, putting together a mock campaign. The paper outlined the framework for “Cans,” but she admits she never imagined it would ever become the tremendously successful program that has emerged over the years.

Susan Johnson (pictured here with husband Jerry) wrote the paper that evolved into "Cans Around the Oval."
Susan Johnson (pictured here with husband Jerry) wrote the paper that evolved into “Cans Around the Oval.”

“At the time, the Sig Eps (Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity) were in big trouble with the administration over a panty raid, and I thought this food drive (described in the paper) would help them get back in the good graces of the university,” Johnson said, laughing at the memory. “The fraternities already were committed to community service, so I thought it might be fun to have an open competition to see who could bring in the most food.”

The Sig Eps easily won the competition, bringing in more than 3,000 pounds of non-perishable food items during the six-day competition. In all, the seven participating fraternities brought in 5,318 pounds of food – more than twice the goal of 2,500 pounds.

“It was a huge success,” Johnson said. “I even got the mayor at the time (Larry Estrada) to come out and say a few words.”

When all the food was collected, the volunteers wanted to stack the cans on the steps of the Administration Building on the south end of the Oval, but that plan was nixed. Someone suggested they instead display the cans around the Oval…and a tradition was born.

Enter Victoria Keller, who graduated from CSU in 1979 with a degree in social work before coming back in the late 1980s to get a master’s in education. She was working in CSU’s Office of Community Services – a precursor to today’s Student Leadership, Involvement and Community Engagement (SLiCE) office – when she learned about Trautmann’s project the previous year.

Huge, ongoing success

Keller talked with Sandy Bouden, the former director of the Food Bank for Larimer County about continuing the project and tying it to World Food Day in October.

Working with Bouden and student volunteers from across campus, Keller helped turn “Cans” into the major event we know today.

“We were always trying to find new marketing tools, to engage more people,” said Keller, now the associate director of development for CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences. “What we discovered is that competition enhanced the goals of the project. We challenged ASCSU, fraternities, sororities, residence halls, State Classified Council, the Presiden’s Council, the football and volleyball teams, neighborhood schools, Boy Scouts – you name it – to bring in the most food possible.”

Victoria Keller, shown here with honorary campaign chair Tom Sutherland in 2007, played a huge role in making "Cans Around the Oval" the iconic program it is today.
Victoria Keller, shown here with honorary campaign chair Tom Sutherland in 2007, played a huge role in making “Cans Around the Oval” the iconic program it is today.

Even though she hasn’t been directly involved for more than a decade, Keller said her kids grew up with “Cans” and they continue to contribute every year. She’s still  delighted at the impact of the event, which last year gathered 60,364 pounds of food and more than $57,000 in donations for the Food Bank.

“What is so gratifying is that ‘CANS,’ which was started by a small group of passionate students, has grown into a CSU tradition, and even broadened into a community-wide event,” she said. “That is very meaningful to me”

Still going strong

“Cans” has been part of SLiCE for many years, and each year new students take their turns in leadership roles. And each year it seems to get bigger and better.

“I feel very grateful that I was able to spend so much of my life (18 years) involved in work that helped promote the volunteer and service-learning aspect of what we do at CSU,” Keller said. “I was fortunate to have spent much of my life with people who are working to make the world a better place,”

Johnson has been involved in several community service projects over the years and currently is a board member with TERI Inc.’s (Training, Education, Research, Innovation) Barn of Hope Equestrian Program near her home in Canyon Lakes, Calif. The Barn of Hope program connects people with learning and behavioral disorders with horses in a highly successful therapy program.

“I can relate to these people because, unbeknownst to me, I was ADHD growing up and it really impacted my ability to learn,” she said. “When I look back on ‘Cans’ I realize it started everything I’m actually good at. I’m so proud of it, and it’s such a privilege to have my name associated with it.”

Please, donate or volunteer

This year’s “Cans Around the Oval” hopes to surpass last year’s totals for food and money raised. Collection day for food and cash is Wednesday, Oct. 12. You can donate online at http://col.st/82Wcg.

Volunteers are needed to help on collection day. If you can help out, sign up here. Volunteers will receive a commemorative 30th anniversary T-shirt.