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By Adina Ba

Stephanie Davis with students from the Bridgeport Lighthouse Afterschool Program

Stephanie Davis with students from the Bridgeport Lighthouse Afterschool Program

“Volunteering is not just an activity, it is a way of life,” says Stephanie Davis who started volunteering 10 years ago when she was only 6 years old. She has two cousins with autism, and this inspired her to start participating in walkathons and fundraising. To this date, she has raised over $30,000 for autism by making and selling “have a heart” pins and other products in her community and has been recognized by the U.N. for World Autism Day in 2008 for her personal advocacy efforts. She has since expanded her advocacy scope to include human rights issues and tutoring children locally in Bridgeport, CT.

What subject in school are you most passionate about?

I’m just starting the 11th grade, I don’t really have a favorite class, although I find biology to be interesting, and I love Spanish because I want to be able to spend time living in a different country when I’m older.

What do you see yourself doing as a long-term career?

I want to spend all the time I can exploring opportunities in the world that will help me find something I am interested in to spend my life doing. I want to do something I feel passionate about and that benefits other people. I want my career to be one that inspires or helps people in some way.

Share the story of how you got started in volunteering.

I was six years old when I started walking in walkathons for autism for my cousin David with my family. It was a few years older when I started volunteering with my mother taking care of children in Operation Hope in Bridgeport while their mothers searched for homes/jobs. I was in sixth grade when I started asking my mother every day to find me a volunteer job so I could help young children in need of education and tutoring. She finally found me one when I was 12 years old and I began volunteering weekly at Elias Howe Family Resource Center in Bridgeport, CT.

How many hours per month / what kind of volunteering do you do?

I spend about 2 hours every Wednesday (sometimes Thursdays as well) helping the Lighthouse Program Students in Bridgeport with their homework and giving them the one on one attention that they deserve. For the past four years I have been doing an annual fundraiser for these children at Cesar A Batalla Elementary School. When I was 13, I made my Bat Mitzvah project a mural painting for the school. The next year I did a winter clothing drive. For the past two years I’ve been doing a letter writing campaign to all of the Bridgeport businesses, raising money for scholarships for the students of The Lighthouse Summer Program. I am also team captain of my Autism Speaks team, “Curing Cousins,” inspired by my two autistic cousins. Since I was 9 I’ve been raising money to support autistic people by making and selling heart shaped pins. Now I involve young children in helping with this cause and advocating for autism awareness in their elementary schools, along with autism fundraisers I do with my friends. In my school I am also co-president of The STAND Club, Students Taking Action Now in Darfur. However we have expanded the club to help not only Darfur, but all of Sudan which is in dire need of aid and restoration. I am also Community Service Officer of the buildOn Club which provides community service opportunities for students.

What keeps you motivated in doing community service?

I am very passionate about the causes I am involved with. My desire to help and make a difference motivates me.

How has volunteering affected you?

Volunteering has definitely shaped the way I view the world. Knowing that the world can be a better place with the effort of every person being kind and caring about others is an amazing thing. I love spending my time doing humane things, especially when others get inspired to do the same.

Share an incredible experience you had through volunteering.

Every week when I enter my classroom I am knocked over by the door with the endearing hugs of the children. Leaving the room is always a struggle, but what the kids don’t know is that I don’t want to leave them even more than they don’t want me to. I’ll never forget the kids that I’ve connected with, helped, and grown to love so much.

What advice would you give to other youth about getting involved?

Everyone needs to find their place in the world by doing good, starting with their community. It is important for people to play their role in giving back to the community and making helping others a part of life. Reaching a hand out to someone in need opens doors that one could never imagine.

What would you say to someone who says it takes too much effort to volunteer?

If someone feels passionately about something and wants to make a difference or help out, then they should. If it means that much to you, then you will find the time. If there isn’t something specific that excites you, give anything a chance. You may be surprised how much you like it.

What benefits have you found in community service?

The feeling I get when I volunteer is my benefit. Just knowing that I have affected someone else’s life in a positive way is the best benefit I get.

What perspective have you gained that could be useful to a future job?

I know the volunteer work I’ve done will help me to have a positive and passionate outlook on any work I do.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Last summer, the summer of ’08, I was fortunate enough to go on an amazing trip to Costa Rica on a teen tour. I went with a group called “Global Works”. The program’s purpose is to allow teens to see the world while doing community service and learning the language of that country. For me, Costa Rica was one of the most memorable experiences of my life because of the connections I made with friends on the trip and the people I met in the town we lived in. We spent ten days living in a town called Parcelas where we got to stay with a Costa Rican family while helping out in the town. I learned how to communicate with people there speaking Spanish and surprised myself as to how well I could keep up in conversation. I still keep in touch with the people I met there and the people who joined me on this incredible journey. The people I met, the friends I made, and the experiences I went through on my Costa Rica adventure have all changed my life substantially. After living in the conditions in this developing country, I have grown a stronger appreciation for what I have in my own life. Also, I feel that this trip has shaped me into a happier, more outgoing person. I am so fortunate to have had such an amazing opportunity so early in my life, and hopefully one day I will make my way back to Parcelas!

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By Adina Ba

 

Cameron with one of the first scholarship recipients Joseph Gordon

Cameron with one of the first scholarship recipients Joseph Gordon

Cameron currently works for the NBA/WNBA as a Senior Manager for their Marketing Partnerships division.  A year out of college at the age of 24, in April of 2001, Cameron founded a non-profit organization called Giving Opportunties To Others (GOTO). GOTO offers underprivileged middle school students (in NYC and Boston) the opportunity to attend an art and music summer camp for three years in a row. Over the past eight years, GOTO has funded over 200 camp experiences. In addition, each graduate of GOTO has the chance to pair with a young professional mentor. All of the efforts needed to make this organization operate are completed by the leadership of young professionals. To date, over 400 young professionals have volunteered with GOTO on an ongoing basis leading in committees focused on development, events, marketing, scholarship selection and mentoring efforts.

 

Please share the story of what first inspired you to found the non-profit organization GOTO?

 

I graduated Princeton University in 2000 and my first job was through Princeton’s Project 55 program which supports graduates to enter the workforce in non-traditional roles. Because I had a strong love of arts growing up, I decided that I wanted to work for an arts-based non-profit organization. This is one of the best decisions I could have made.

 

I joined Midori and Friends, founded by musician Midori Goto. This organization raised money for music programs in public schools in NYC. My official role was Grant Writer, but I got to work in many facets of the organization.

 

I grew up in Bermuda, went to a good high school in Canada, and music was a big part of my education. My first year with Midori was an eye-opening adventure. I learned hands on about the lack of resources in NYC for arts and music education, and that’s when GOTO came to me.

 

My experience at Midori taught me how non-profit organizations work. The kids who benefit from Midori love the arts. If I had grown up in NYC like these kids, I wouldn’t have been able to benefit from consistent music education. If I had learned an instrument during the school year, I wouldn’t be able to take it home with me or practice over the summer. When I graduated from college, many of my peers were starting their own companies, it seemed normal to me at that time that I could run my own organization.

 

Did you have a mentor along the way?

Rainah Berlowitz who graduated from Princeton before me in 1998 was my Project 55 mentor. When I was working at Midori, Rainah had been working at another non-profit organization, Education through Music for 3 years. Sitting at a diner across from the Carnegie Deli when I first told him my idea, he gave me all the reasons and encouragement why I should start GOTO. I was pretty excited. It meant a lot that Rainah was so supportive. Rainah has volunteered since day 1 and is currently the President of GOTO NY.

 

Tell us about the beginning of GOTO?

 

One of the things I never underestimated in getting GOTO rolling was getting friends and acquaintances involved. I wasn’t shy at all in asking for help. The proposition was to start an organization to send kids to summer camp. We were going to raise the money by throwing parties. We didn’t know the work it would take, but we were very determined.

 

We formed a board of 5 people who were longtime friends. For anybody who’s excited about volunteering, and contributing or giving back, the best thing that you can do is to find friends that want to do it with you, it makes the experience that much more fun. We approached our work as friends, really proud of what we were creating.

 

It was really important that kids could go to summer arts and music camp for 3 years in a row. We couldn’t fail because we’d fail the children. The first year, we started with eight students. Our three year per student goal showed our seriousness to volunteers, potential donors, and arts coordinators. It was important to us to reward these children and provide a sense of stability to them.

 

We started our parties in the summer of 2001 and ran them throughout the year, including one scheduled for September 13 (two days after 9/11) that was cancelled. GOTO could have derailed at that time, but it didn’t. We even closed out the year with two more successful events.

 

Besides your volunteers, did you have any other resources in getting GOTO off the ground?

 

After the first few months, we had raised enough money to really make this happen. Then it was time to find a summer camp to partner with. It took a lot of effort to find the best fit organization with the most enthusiasm. Apple Farm was our answer. It is really a rural farm, different than any experience these kids can have in a big city. Beyond being the best camp for our students, Apple Farm was also very supportive in answering all questions to prospective students and their parents. They were an invaluable resource.

 

GOTO’s organization is quite unique in how it is run. Can you give an overview of the role that young professionals play in executing the various components of the organization? 

 

The board loved that the organization was being run by volunteer young professionals. Many people straight out of college may not be leading anything in their day job. We gave these young professionals the opportunities to lead. Seminars and school are vehicles to pay for experience. Volunteering is a way to get hands on direct experience and make a difference at the same time.

 

What tools did you have to get started?

 

The only thing we had were our volunteers and managing volunteers can be difficult, there’s no paycheck to dangle in front of them. The tools I had were: leading by example, motivation, and communication. We learned a whole lot and I am now a better manager for it, and a better employee. That’s the type of volunteer opportunities that we provide. There’s nothing wrong for people to show up one weekend of the year to pick up trash. Sometimes organizations just need people to show up and do a specific task. But we ask a lot more than that, and our volunteers deliver.

 

What is one of your greatest accomplishments for GOTO?

 

Our students are talented in the arts in a school system that doesn’t allow them to fully express their joy/passion for the arts, that’s a big side of themselves that they’re sheltering for the majority of the year. This stunts their confidence; they’re not able to be themselves. With summer camp, they blossom, they become themselves. When they return to school, their confidence remains.

 

We are very fortunate that these kids are already awesome. We are not making them into anything other than what they are.

 

What advice would you give to someone just starting to think about volunteering in their community?

 

Whatever role that you’re hoping to volunteer, big or small, I think the most important thing for a volunteer is to do is stay committed to the task that they have taken on. The non-profit may not have the resources and any volunteer contribution is vital for overall success.

 

Please share your experiences of working full-time and doing such impactful volunteer work? Do you have any advice to others who may be in a similar situation?

 

When I first started, someone gave me good advice. I was doing a lot of the work myself. I was told to share the work. I was protective of what may happen if I wasn’t in control of everything. But it’s important to spread all the work among different people. It may take more time to get formed the way you see it, but in the long run, you’re going to have a greater impact, and not burn yourself out.

 

We volunteer, give money, and have some meetings after hours, but it doesn’t feel like work. We have a neat group of volunteers, they’re fun to hang around with and fun to work with. I have no problem spending my time out of work on GOTO related things. It’s just my perspective, but we’re not just picking up trash, we are running an organization that does good work and it feels good.

 

What response would you give to someone who has never volunteered before and their argument is that it would take too much work/energy to create change in our communities or our world?

  

There are young professionals out there who have great education and great jobs, and they may still be lacking something more. If you’re in that situation, you should try to volunteer and do something challenging in that way. GOTO makes an impact that lives on in our students. Even if we have a mundane task to do, it’s for the overall benefit of the program and there is gratification in that. Everything that we do helps. Once you commit to a cause, it is an act of selflessness.

 

Many people don’t start thinking about philanthropy until they are older. If you are a recent graduate, you have all the ingredients to support a cause like GOTO. The only currency you need is energy, ingenuity, and connections.

 

Check GOTO out at www.thegotogroup.org

By Adina Ba

lisa-russell-photo Lisa Russell is an independent documentary filmmaker whose background in international development work helps draw inspiration for her films about the health and well-being of our global society. Lisa’s films link different social issues together and look at the common threads of race, class, gender, privilege and non-privilege. She has filmed in many locations such as Brazil, Burkina Faso, and South Africa to Brooklyn, NY where she is currently a teaching artist at Urban Word NYC. Some of Lisa’s films highlight global health issues such as women’s reproductive rights. Other films Lisa has created spotlight artists and poets of different cultures speaking about social issues they care most about. While some of her work has aired on public television, most of her film work is tied into campaigns with the international community to affect social change through awareness, fundraising and legislative advocacy.  

 

Have you always worked in advocacy or did you start with a different career track?

  

 In my past, I ran a group home for a couple of years, but I didn’t have the language or know what to do with my background to make sense of the work I was destined to do.I thought I could be a doctor so I could help people. I was on my way to medical school during college, did my MCATS but wasn’t convinced it was what I wanted to do. I had grown up in California and never lived anywhere else. I decided I could not dedicate the next eight years of my life to just one thing. And so, I packed up and moved to Boston.

 

In Boston, I took adult education classes at Harvard University, specifically focused in the pre-med area. One day, in a particular class, we watched a fifteen minute film of a Harvard professor speaking about different social determinants (age, gender, and race) which perpetuated the AIDS epidemic. This film was a calling for me. International/global focus was very appealing to me. I ended up getting my Masters in Public Health and International Health.

 

Through development work, I was able to travel to St. Vincent. I also consulted for the UN and ended up in Kosovo during the Refugee Crisis. It was interesting and important, but I didn’t feel it was the most I could contribute. I was more of an activist, not a program person.

 

In 2000, I co-produced a film in Brazil for World AIDS Day. I interviewed and received hands on experience doing news reporting. This helped me learn a great skill. I was able to bring filmmaking together with my work in international development. I grabbed things from different experiences that I had, and it all came together at one point. I’m very lucky, but the path was not thought out, it happened.

 

What skills did you bring to your current work? What new skills did you gain?  

The first thing is that I had a desire to make a difference in the world, to have a purpose behind the work that I do. Secondly, I needed an outlet for my lifelong creative drive. When I was younger, my mom talked me out of becoming a dancer, and I ended up initially going premed. Becoming a filmmaker allowed me to use all of my skills and interests.   

What motivated you to start, what motivates you to continue this work?

I don’t exactly know. I grew up in a poor single parent home. I felt the place I grew up was way too small for my head, and so I became very independent and free. I chartered my own path. Coming from that background propelled me to want to do something. I was the first of my family to go to college.

To continue, I really love what I do. Until the need no longer exists, there’s still a reason to do it. Because there is challenge in my work, it keeps me engaged. I enjoy always working on new or different projects, speaking to new people, etc.

 

I’ve been around difficult stuff for a while. I don’t want to do “sad face” documentaries. I still make an effort to retain the dignity of the people I’m filming. I balance the challenges my subjects face with their culture’s beauty that we’ve lost in our society from being too focused on capitalism and commercialism.

 

When someone wants to begin advocacy work, does that mean they have to stop everything else they’re doing? (Current job, career, etc.)

 

Personally, I’d love to see a day when it’s not called advocacy work; a day when it becomes part of our culture. I speak to high school students and encourage them to use film with something they already care about. If you feel like you want to do good in the world, strive for it to be part of your daily life.

 

 

Do you have any other advice for people just starting out?

 

 

You have to start with passion for something to really get involved in it. You have to be engaged. I’m not a big pusher about getting everyone on a plane to volunteer in Africa. Local community service is just as great and in our backyards. If you want to make lives better for people that are less fortunate than you, get outside your comfort zone and volunteer. What is it you can do? How far can you take it? For one person, being a big brother or big sister is just as meaningful as another person doing Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. Without that connection, it’s hard to commit yourself to something you’re not passionate about. Without passion, you won’t stay involved. You can read and understand social issues intellectually but unless you get out there and volunteer hands on, there’s no emotional connection and no outcome.

 

 

What response would you give to someone who has never volunteered before and their argument is that it would take too much work/energy to create change in our communities or our world? 

 

 

We are involved and contribute our time to something every day. It takes the same amount of energy to make the world a worse place as it does a better place. For example, we can throw something in the trash can or the recycle bin. We need to prioritize what’s good for our collective humanity on this planet. On a global level, children die from hunger every day. We have the resources to distribute the food, but since we don’t prioritize, this doesn’t happen. First, one must believe in this philosophy, second, they need the dedication to persevere.

 

 

After watching many of Lisa’s films, I wanted to share one with you about a spoken word artist from South Africa. It’s great to learn about someone’s culture from their own voice.

 

 

 

About Me

adina pic This blog is created to share and dissiminate easy ways for any concerned citizen to be an agent of change in their community and the world at large. Please join in the conversation towards progress.

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