Sleep. Study. Save the world

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Despite their already hectic schedules, many students choose to pursue philanthropic efforts alongside schoolwork. Kabeer Sethi looks at the difficulties facing Ryerson’s non-profit workers

It’s hard being a student. It’s harder if you have a job. It can be nearly impossible if you’re trying to run a non-profit organization at the same time.

But that’s exactly what Ryerson New Media graduate Agata Pogorelsky did.

After travelling to Kenya in May 2010 with Ryerson’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program, Pogorelsky started Beads For Beds (BFB), a registered non-profit organization that makes and sells jewelry to raise money for aid in Africa.

However, the life of a student philanthropist is full of complications, from balancing charity work with schoolwork to finding the funds and volunteers to make the difference they dream of.

“Visions don’t come with instructions,” Pogorelsky says, undeterred by the difficulties of running Beads for Beds. “I always had it in me, this thing about helping others. I always cared.”

While still at Ryerson, she started the non-profit alongside Miranda Scotland, who is now in her fourth year of journalism. But not all Ryerson students share Scotland and Pogorelsky’s enthusiasm.

“I feel [students] are constantly bombarded about stories of struggles in Africa, be it war or poverty,” says Pogorelsky. “It’s hard to generate interest and motivate students, especially as they have so much else going on.”

Currently, their main project is to raise $50,000 for a boys’ dormitory for the Dago Dala Hera Orphanage in Kenya, which they hope to start constructing in May 2013. Pogorelsky first visited the currently all-girls orphanage with ASB, but developed an attachment to the children and decided to stay longer to help out when the trip was over.

She says she strongly recommends students travelling to underprivileged areas to expand their horizons.

“I think there should be something where students are sent to travel after high school to see the world,” says Pogorelsky. “That’s the only way in which they can break out and see what’s happening with their own eyes. I think that would really help to motivate them.”

In addition to the unmotivated students, some students who would be willing to volunteer their time simply don’t know where to turn.

“There isn’t a lot of advertising. I don’t even know what’s going on or what clubs exist at Ryerson,” says Sarah Ermias, first-year food and nutrition student.

“Many clubs tend to only advertise to members who are already in the group, and other people don’t even hear about the events or ways to contribute.”

Other organizations at Ryerson have had more problems getting financial support for their endeavors. International non-profit World Fit for Children (WFFC) started a Ryerson chapter in September, and the students have had trouble getting support from the university. Ryerson is not directly providing resources to the students, forcing the group to finance events in other ways.

“We approached businesses, such as Starbucks and Metro, for a bake sale held in December.” says Hikmat Rafiqzad, President of WFFC at Ryerson. “Some of the money we pitched in, but mostly it was through donations [from businesses].”

Pogorelsky has tried to find support from outside the student population as well. She tried to go to Yukon and promote beading — making and selling jewelry to raise funds — for charitable causes among the natives who live there. She found it frustrating, however, in part due to a lack of financial support from the university.

Ryerson’s Projects-Funds Allocation Committee for Students (P-FACS) is in charge of designating funds for student groups like Pogorelsky’s, but she says there isn’t much information about them available to students and she found them to be less than encouraging.

“I remember I couldn’t even get enough money for a laptop from P-FACS,” says Pogorelsky. “Most of the money comes out of my own pocket, and I don’t get paid to do this to begin with. It’s tough.”

P-FACS does do their share of good—they recently provided resources for a new student space initiative and allocate approximately $180,000 a year to student projects.

“We absolutely sponsor students wishing to help people in other countries,” says Lesley McRae, campus activities and events facilitator.

“For an organization to be eligible [for P-FACS funds], they have to demonstrate that they will enhance the quality of student life, promote the image of students and university as well as create a sense of community and well-being at Ryerson.”

Since he only recently found out about the existence of P-FACS, Rafiqzad attempted to get reimbursed for money that was invested towards the bake sale by students. This request was denied, but he says the experience was helpful.

“There’s a lengthy process that you have to follow to get funding—but to be fair, I missed the two-weeks prior notice policy they have,” he says. “I found the staff very helpful, though, and I think they were supportive of my cause.”

The bake sale raised $250 for a school being built in India, which Rafiqzad considers a successful fundraiser. Looking forward, he is hoping to organize a concert that would really put WFFC on the Ryerson radar.

“In Afghanistan, you see orphan children and beggars who immediately spot you as someone with money simply based on wearing clothes that are washed,” says Rafiqzad. “I think these students deserve the same education and opportunities we have and I think WFFC is a great way for me to contribute in my own way.”

Mcrae says that some projects don’t get as much money as they hope because there are so many requests from student groups and a limited amount of money.

“In order to receive funding, students have to apply to us and show that they’ve exhausted every other resource possible,” she says. “This is because we get a lot of offers and have to allocate accordingly. The maximum amount we give is $5,000, raised to a maximum of $9,000 in extreme cases where there have been no other forthcoming donations.”

She continued, “There’s definitely more projects than money.”

Still, student awareness about programs available on campus is limited, and adequate promotion is required in order to bring them to the forefront of campus life.

WFFC’s bake sale also served as a chance to recruit more members, a resource almost every non-profit needs more of.

“We had people sign up and I think we recruited around 10 to 15 people at the sale,” says Rafiqzad. “The students are interested for sure. All it takes is getting to them and giving them an opportunity to make a difference.”

Pogorelsky agrees that students would like to help out, but they don’t always feel the need to join any particular group. “I think students want to do this stuff, but we have to give them some kind of incentive to join as well.” Pogorelsky says. “Balancing a social life along with studying is hard but necessary, and needs a lot of focus and time management.”

First-year commerce student Nithin Madadi volunteers with WFFC, but understands why students would shy away from using their time for volunteer work.

“If students participate in student groups and stuff like that, their grades tend to suffer. That’s why they choose not to at times,” he says.

“It takes focus and some people are able to juggle volunteering with school and sometimes even a job. But the group would really have to appeal to members.”

Beads for Beds and Ryerson’s chapter of World Fit for Children are relatively new groups, but they’re optimistic about the future of philanthropy at Ryerson.

“I think that we’ll make it,” Pogorelsky says of her quest to build the dorm at Dago Dala Hera.

“We faced many hardships, but things are looking up right now and I think with time more people will show interest and commitment. It only takes some effort and persistence, but if it’s what you love to do then it’s worth it.”

This article has been corrected.

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