On the same August day in 2005 that Hurricane Katrina roared through New Orleans, Stefanie Solar ’11 was celebrating her 16th birthday in Houston. Sweetening her birthday was the unexpected presence of friends who had been evacuated from their school in Louisiana. But, as news of the hurricane’s destruction spread, Solar’s birthday turned bittersweet.
Katrina, however, launched Solar on a path of volunteering and fundraising that led her to establish the Maine Philanthropy Awards her first year at Colby.
The brainchild of Solar and her brother Bryan ’08 (cofounder of Lazy Mule Laundry at Colby), the Maine Philanthropy Awards, now in their fourth year, celebrate philanthropy and community service in Maine. Awards are given in four categories: statewide, central Maine, Colby student, and high school student.
In establishing the awards, Solar aimed to inspire people who dismiss philanthropy as something solely for the wealthy. “You don’t have to be a millionaire to do something,” Solar said.
Solar was a Girl Scout growing up and did service projects at her Catholic school. Her parents, who were active in the Houston community, encouraged Solar and her three older brothers to give back to their community. But Katrina was “a huge turning point” in her life, she said.
Shortly after the hurricane hit, Solar’s Dominican Catholic all-girls high school, St. Agnes Academy, absorbed about 60 students from its sister school in New Orleans. Solar and her friends immediately saw these new students’ needs—school supplies and clothing most apparent—and ached to help. The young Houstonites put their heads together and decided to hold a fundraiser. Enter Operation Dominican Spirit.
Without prior experience, Solar and her friends organized and hosted a $100-a-seat dinner and a silent auction at a New Orleans-style restaurant in Houston. They raised $30,000—all of which stayed in the Houston area for hurricane relief.
The Katrina fundraiser motivated Solar to entertain the possibility of a career in the social sector. She volunteered widely her senior year of high school to learn about nonprofits and development work. For her efforts Solar received the Rising Latina Leader award in 2007 from the League of United Latin American Citizens. She also received a 2007 Presidential Volunteer Service Gold Award for more than 500 hours of annual service.
These awards reinforced the value of recognition for work well done. As Solar prepared to come to Colby, she investigated whether or not there were any philanthropy awards in Maine. There were not, so the Solar siblings set out to change that.
“My brother and I realized that what’s always great about these award ceremonies is that they inspire other people to be more active,” Solar said.
Carol Wishcamper agrees. Wishcamper, along with her husband, Joe, received the 2010 statewide philanthropy award. “It’s nice to have people more aware of the role that philanthropy plays in supporting community organizations,” she said.
The Wishcampers, who live and work in Freeport, have been generous donors to many projects over the years (the Nature Conservancy and the University of Southern Maine are among the beneficiaries of their giving) but never thought of themselves as philanthropists. Receiving the award changed that. “It was affirming in a way to know how other people were seeing and regarding what we were doing,” Wishcamper said.
Colby students who have received an award include Jamie Goldring ’09, founder of Luzicare, an initiative to bring affordable health care to Malawi; Qiamuddin Amiry ’09 and John Campbell ’09 for their Afghan Scholars Initiative (see story, P. 26); and Stephen Erario ’10 for his economic and energy conservation work for the city of Waterville. This year’s recipients were Julia Bruss ’11 and John Perkins ’11, co-directors of the Colby Volunteer Center. Bruss has volunteered for a suicide hotline, a domestic abuse shelter, Waterville-area schools, and Hardy Girls Healthy Women; Perkins has served with Colby Emergency Response, coached youth soccer, and volunteered at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter.
The Maine Philanthropy Awards are a program of Colby’s Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, which each year facilitates the placement of hundreds of student volunteers in various capacities throughout central Maine. Since the student volunteers rely on the generosity and expertise of mentors with whom they work, the awards allow Colby the “opportunity to recognize people who make it possible for our students to do this kind of work,” said Alice Elliott, associate director of the Goldfarb Center.
Elliott believes that volunteering and philanthropy have a strong intellectual component. Working at a soup kitchen through the Colby Volunteer Center or mentoring an elementary student through the Colby Cares About Kids program, for example, gives students opportunities to begin to understand the complexity of solving community problems. “I want our students to be thinking not about how good it feels to serve,” Elliott said, “but how to eliminate the problem.”
As a Colby student, Solar, an international studies and anthropology double major, employs just that kind of thinking. Each summer she undertook an internship at a nonprofit organization, including positions with the Houston A+ Challenge, Children’s Defense Fund in Houston, the Global Fund for Children in Washington, D.C., and Educational Pioneers in Houston. She also sits on the board of the Waterville nonprofit Hardy Girls Healthy Women and is a student manager for the Colby Fund’s phonathon.
Solar’s most powerful lessons, however, came during her junior semester abroad. While in India and South Africa, she was dismayed at what she saw as the failure of many development projects she witnessed. She saw a disconnect between the reality of life in these countries and decisions made half a world away. Solar questioned her belief that development work could change the world and realized that, “If anything was going to change, I had to start at the bottom—and education was the number one thing on my mind.”
After graduation Solar will return to Houston, where she’ll work for Teach for America. But not without acknowledging the significant mark she’s left at Colby.
“[The Maine Philanthropy Awards] are a sign of success for me,” she said. “I’m able to check it off and say, ‘I did my work here. We really made this go.’”