February 13, 2008: Features
By Katherine Federici Greenwood
It was not an enticing lecture that lured Kush Parmar ’02 away from his classroom and toward McCosh Hall on a cold, sunny November day in 1999; not an appointment with a professor. It was, instead, a project that Parmar and his sister Sheila ’01 had begun planning six months earlier — a project that was now in serious trouble.
The Parmars had formed a student group that would kick-start construction of public facilities in poor, remote Mexican communities not far from where they grew up. The first project was to be a middle school in Cruz Blanca, a small mountain village in the coastal state of Veracruz, where youngsters typically finished their formal education at age 10 to begin picking coffee beans in nearby plantations. But the plan was about to fizzle, unless the students could raise what seemed like the monumental sum of $15,000. The Parmars recruited their musical friends to perform at a concert in the Chapel, and Kush Parmar opted for some low-cost advertising: He skipped his classes, donned a sandwich board, and stood by the busy path near McCosh, shouting as he promoted the students’ concert and their dream. Among the passersby was Parmar’s art history professor. “Kush,” he said, “you should be going to class.”
Parmar learned several lessons that afternoon — including the challenge of balancing academic work with an all-consuming extracurricular activity, and the fact that he and his sister would need to master much, like fundraising, that is not taught in Princeton classrooms.
Eight years later, the Parmars have learned those lessons well, and their project, called the Cruz Blanca Initiative (www.cbinitiative.org), is thriving. A Princeton Township resident who wandered into the chapel concert later that evening made a donation, introduced the students to his affluent friends, and taught them how to go about raising the cash they required. The Student Volunteers Council showed them how to arrange student travel, including how to deal with issues of liability and legal waivers. Others helped them learn the ins and outs of IRS paperwork when they formed a nonprofit organization. “We knew we were in over our head sometimes,” says Sheila Parmar, but at the same time, she notes, the students were like sponges, learning from anyone who had something to teach.
It used to be that college volunteerism meant after-school tutoring or weekend environmental cleanups. While those good works go on, today’s students often have more ambitious, long-term projects in mind. And so Ann Ellis Woolley ’01, then a junior majoring in engineering, opened first a school in Kenya, then a clinic nearby.
Julia Neubauer ’07 co-founded, with other college students, a home for street children in a slum in India.
“You can’t stand there and stare — you want to do something,” says Dan Kelly ’03, explaining what prompted him to set up a feeding center for malnourished children in 2006, while he was in medical school. By then, Kelly had volunteered as director of a student-run free clinic in New York City, and spent a summer in Cuba working on public health. He went to Sierra Leone on a fellowship and found himself treating children who were starving to death. “Mothers would run back to the village to try to get some money [for hospital admission] from the community, and the child would die while the mother was still out and about,” Kelly recalls. On an average day, at least one child died.
The experience “almost immobilized me,” says Kelly; instead, he teamed up with a Kenyan colleague to establish a feeding center at the Sierra Leone hospital. Today, the UNICEF-funded center regularly cares for more than 40 children and also trains women to go back to their communities to teach mothers about malnutrition and keeping their children healthy. (Later, Kelly began a medical clinic serving amputees.)
Like Kelly’s feeding center, the projects of other Princeton students were born of the extreme need they witnessed when living abroad. Woolley began to think about starting a free school in Kenya after traveling there in the summer after her freshman year. She lived with a host family and volunteered at an orphanage run by the sisters of Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa, in Kibera, a slum near Nairobi; she met mothers who lamented that even the low fees charged to attend government schools were beyond their reach. The Parmars’ Cruz Blanca project has its roots in the many days they spent as children, distributing rice and cans of beans to families living in the poor village near their own, more affluent, community in Mexico.
Neubauer attended high school at the Mahindra United World College in Pune, India — part of an international high school system that requires students to serve in the community. She volunteered at an orphanage with six caretakers for 200 attention-starved children. After her freshman year at college, Neubauer and another orphanage volunteer, then at Emory University, returned to India to live and volunteer in a home for 30 street children in Mumbai (formerly called Bombay), where they met 4-year-old drug addicts and 7-year-old prostitutes. “If there’s one place I would describe as hell for a kid, it’s the Bombay railway station,” says Julia. A year later, in June 2005, the two women, with help from five other high school friends, opened a small, less institutional home for six children, aged 6 to 14, in Pune. The rather daunting goal: Change the children’s lives, so they would not end up on the streets again.
Students who tackle such intractable problems as poverty and lack of education in developing countries “are not only able to see the problems or the challenges but to envision solutions and to come up with these remarkable new ideas, which at first for many of us sound like they might not be feasible — and yet they can find ways to make things happen,” says Princeton’s vice president for campus life, Janet Dickerson. Some students — encouraged by funding from Princeton-affiliated groups such as Project 55 — are prepared to become CEOs of nonprofits even before they graduate, she says. Dickerson admits to having “discouraged students from taking on such major projects too early in their academic careers,” but says she generally supports the students in what they are attempting to do. In any case, she says, “usually our discouragement is ineffective.”
Noticing student interest in “social entrepreneurship,” the Pace Center, which promotes community involvement, offered a noncredit fall seminar, “Social Entrepreneurs, Innovators, and Problem Solvers,” led by Scott Sherman, founder of the Transformative Action Institute in Los Angeles. Its 13 students considered case studies of leaders in the for-profit and nonprofit worlds and learned about conflict resolution, fundraising, leadership, and networking. They developed grant proposals and presented business plans at the end of the semester. Amanda Mazur ’08, for example, created a project called “Don’t Let It Go to Waist.” She hopes to combat hunger and obesity by organizing a coalition of restaurants in her hometown of Chicago that would offer agreeable customers smaller portions while charging the regular price; the restaurants would then contribute the savings — in either food or dollars — to food banks or other organizations that work to alleviate hunger.
Sherman’s course did not exist in the late 1990s when Woolley, then a sophomore majoring in engineering, set out to determine what opening a school in Kenya would require, and how she might accomplish it. The sisters of the Missionaries of Charity permitted Woolley to use their buildings at no charge. The sisters also agreed to run the school’s day-to-day operation and oversee the teachers. “It would be seen as the sisters’ school,” says Woolley, who was intent on making sure that it would be a partnership, not a handout. Using contacts she made through her Kenyan host family, the Princeton student met with lower-level employees at the Ministry of Education and at nongovernmental organizations, seeking advice on Kenyan education and curricula. Her host mother, a trained teacher, helped Woolley find teachers, gather materials, and train four Kiberan mothers as instructors. An American company donated uniforms for the students. Woolley says she did not feel intimidated in her meetings — she was enthusiastic, expecting to succeed, and “there to learn.”
But how to pay for the school’s operation? Her break came after a conversation with the pastor of St. Paul’s Church in Princeton, though she didn’t go into the meeting with him with “the fundraising mentality that I need to have and use now,” she says. Still, the pastor, Walter Nolan, was impressed by her organization and the detail of her plans, and the parish finance committee, which has a twin parish in Uganda, felt sympathetic. It offered $10,000 in seed money, along with its blessing. “I can’t imagine that you, being a junior in college, can really open a school,” Nolan told her, Woolley recalls. “But good luck. I hope you can. And if you can, this money will go to good use.” It did: Classes began in January 2000 for 520 students ages 5 to 15, some of whom had never been to school before.
Social entrepreneurs learn quickly that shyness has no place in such an endeavor. And so the students asked for help wherever they could find it: from parents, schoolmates, professors, and complete strangers who had cash or expertise. Kush Parmar admits to trolling the TigerNet alumni directory for potential donors, at one point searching for anyone with “president” in the job title. He came across Barry Simon ’64, the former vice president of Continental Airlines, and wrote a letter asking him to donate roundtrip tickets for students to work in Mexico. “I heard back! I was shocked,” Parmar says. For two years, until Sept. 11, Continental gave participating students free flights.
Whenever they could, the students drew on their Princeton connections. The Parmars’ project received $2,000 from the President’s Fund to support student travel expenses (though it later ran into trouble for violating a University policy on student-group fundraising) and is now associated with Princeton in Latin America. Woolley got grants totaling $6,000 from the Office of Religious Life and the President’s Fund to support herself and three other Princeton students who were teaching at her school in Kenya during the summer. She also connected with Joseph Woods ’81, a plastic surgeon in Georgia and volunteer in Kenya, who was instrumental in helping Woolley open a primary-care clinic near the school the summer after she graduated. And the University provided a forum for Neubauer: She has given talks at the International Center and the Pace Center, and has mounted photo exhibits that led to contributions from Princetonians.
After classes, the students morphed into part-time fund-raisers, publicists, event planners, and even lawyers-in-training. Neubauer drew on the presentation skills she had used in her Princeton classes to put on donor-friendly PowerPoint and video presentations in the city hall of her hometown in Austria, among other places. With no attorney or accountant, she and her fellow students got an on-the-job crash course in the fine points of registering and managing a nonprofit — theirs is Ashraya Initiative for Children (www.ashrayainitiative.org). She took time out from work on her economics thesis last spring to revise materials that would go to the IRS. “I was running regressions for the analytical part of my thesis and working on answering the IRS questions” at the same time, she recalls. “I thought, ‘I should probably be working on my thesis right now!’” Her internship at the Princeton University Investment Co. helped her understand the financial spreadsheets she had to prepare. As treasurer of the nonprofit, Neubauer tracks the donations, compiles the financial statements, and sends the donors receipts and personal thank-you notes. There was an unanticipated bright side: All that writing “helped my grade in courses where I had to write papers or reports,” she says.
Some of the questions the students faced had no parallel in the classroom. Neubauer and her co-founders had to decide whether the Pune home should accept children who were drug addicts or prostitutes — as some of the street children were. The students decided that they could not. “We’re not therapists, we’re just college students,” Neubauer says.
Occasionally the social entrepreneurs struggled with how to make adults take them seriously. In the Cruz Blanca Initiative, Princeton students volunteer to work in the Mexican villages during spring break; the villagers volunteer to finish the construction; and local government officials are expected to kick in a share of the costs and find contractors, teachers, and other professionals. No one coached the Parmars on setting up meetings with community leaders or convincing small-town mayors to match funding; instead, they had groomed their people skills as they grew up by watching their parents interact in an area where “bargaining is huge in the market and everything is about a relationship,” Sheila Parmar says. They arranged their first meeting with the mayor of rural Cruz Blanca through family connections.
At their first fundraising meeting with affluent Princeton residents, the Parmars aimed to look professional and ended up feeling overdressed. But in Mexico, they tried to gain credibility by meeting with community leaders wearing Princeton T-shirts and jeans. “Pretty much we’re always wearing Prince-ton garb” at meetings with people in Mexico, says Kush Parmer. “As a young person, it’s difficult to get these big guys to take you seriously, but the Princeton name was a helpful thing.” Partly to convince the mayor that they were up to the job of building a school, the students brought design plans that had been prepared by a family friend who was a mechanical engineer. But a promise and a Princeton T-shirt don’t always cut it, especially in a “more urban, more savvy environment,” Parmar acknowledges. Indeed, they have struck out with other government officials, most recently last year in Boca del Rio, where “the mayor wouldn’t even see us,” he says.
Of course, one of the bigger challenges has been balancing the demands of starting and running a nonprofit with those of a Princeton undergraduate. “While my roommates were doing their problem sets, I was writing donor letters at 4 a.m.,” says Neubauer, who managed the fundraising, publicity, and administrative tasks of the children’s home while Emory students lived at the home. Freshman year she rowed with the crew, but quit because “the orphanage and varsity crew were not going to mingle very well,” Neubauer says. She bickered, but ended up not joining an eating club. The hours she says she would have spent lingering over meals she put to good use setting up her nonprofit organization and making donor calls. “I was never hung over on a Sunday,” she says. “It was, like, sleep in or feed the kids.”
The Parmars figure that they each spent about 15 hours per week working on Cruz Blanca Initiative projects while at Princeton — about the same amount of time some busy students put into their extracurricular activities — though the initial planning period was more intense. “At times, I felt overwhelmed trying to do so much,” Sheila Parmar says of her work contacting potential donors, setting up meetings with alumni, and speaking to partners in Mexico to make sure logistics were in place. “I resolved this by becoming more organized. ... Several times I remember hanging out with my friends, watching TV, and writing donor letters on my laptop.” Kush Parmer squeezed in Cruz Blanca work between lab experiments, and dropped out of his eating club in his senior year because it demanded too much time. School breaks meant extra time to travel to their projects abroad, the alumni say — not days on the ski slopes or a Florida beach.
“It cut through every part of my life,” explains Woolley, “and continues to direct what I want to do in life and who I am.” She took courses in medical anthropology and African history and politics to inform the work she was doing at the Kenyan school. Doing this “made my life more fulfilled,” she says. “It became part of who I was, rather than taking away from the things I loved.”
Today, though these students have graduated from Princeton, the projects they created continue to grow. Neubauer works full-time as an analyst at Princo, using the skills she has learned there to help manage the finances of the Indian children’s home, and spending her vacations on fund-raising trips and visits to Pune. Ten children now live in the home; Neubauer, called “Juli Didi,” or “older sister,” by the children, used a $10,000 Princeton Projects of Peace grant to set up a computer center for them. She and her student co-founders also established a tutoring program for area children, health screenings at a local hospital, and literacy classes for women. The India project, she says, has been the “best decision of my life.”
Woolley remains in Africa, where she works for the Clinton Foundation’s HIV/AIDS initiative; she plans to return to medical school at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, where she completed two years and earned a master’s in public health while building the Kenyan school. She says she now has a “behind-the-scenes” role at the school and clinic she established in Kenya. The school buildings also serve as a community center: The children eat lunch and dinner there, and their mothers use the site to make crafts to sell and to learn microfinance skills. In 2002, the Kenyan government abolished school fees; today, Woolley’s school works to prepare students to transfer to government schools in fourth grade. Woolley, who plans a career in global health after finishing medical school, continues to fundraise for her foundation, RAFIKI (www.therafiki.org) — the word means “friend” — and oversees the school and the clinic as others handle day-to-day duties.
The Parmars’ project, the Cruz Blanca Initiative, has grown into a popular break trip for Princeton students. So far, the organization has helped to build a well, a community center, a sports complex, and two schools, and helped to install sanitation systems, stoves, and roofs. Kush Parmar, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate at Harvard Medical School, and Sheila Parmar, who works at the consulting company McKinsey and Co., are grooming current students to take on some of the duties they once handled. Today, students write annual reports and run campus fundraisers, and get involved in raising money off-campus. Two Princeton alumni are spending the year in Mexico, managing logistics and preparing for next year, when a Harvard medical professor and four students and residents will run a mobile medical and dental clinic while Princeton students build a two-room kindergarten in another village.
“What drives you is the satisfaction that what you’re doing wouldn’t be done if you were not doing it,” says Kush Parmar, expressing a sentiment that surely would be echoed by the other social entrepreneurs. “It broadens my relationship with the world.”
Katherine Federici Greenwood is a PAW associate editor.