A Summer at the EPA by Cindy Asano

This past summer, I was blessed with the opportunity of interning at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (E.P.A.) headquarters. Going into the internship, I had no idea what to expect. I remember the nervous excitement I felt as I carefully picked out the suit I would wear the night before my internship (which I had borrowed from my mom), and repeatedly checked my alarm clock three dozen times before bed to ensure I wouldn’t be late.

The first day was a blur full of awkward initial introductions and jittery excitement—there was so much for me to absorb. From the security guards and the metal detector at the entrance to the huge glass meeting doors etched with the E.P.A. logo, I was surrounded in an entirely new environment. My coworkers gave me brief explanations of the projects they had been working on using complex jargon which had no doubt become second nature to them. I was excited to devote my summer towards working with like-minded professionals who were as passionate about environmental sustainability as myself.

My project this summer was to organize the National Stakeholder Forum promoting Sustainable Materials Management in the Built Environment (B.E.) which would be held the upcoming fall. The built environment encompasses everything from buildings, infrastructure, parks, and public transportation systems, and is a crucial component of our daily lives. At the forum, the E.P.A. would work to promote a relatively new concept called Life Cycle Thinking amongst stakeholders, which focuses on reusing and recycling at all stages of a product’s lifecycle rather than just the end.

Within the first few days, I learned of the dire environmental impacts of the built environment—something I as well as most have probably never considered. In the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. received a D+, which has negative implications for the reliability and safety of our nation’s infrastructure. Approximately $4.59 trillion in investments will be needed in the near future to refurbish the built environment, and demand for these materials are expected sky-rocket. Because these materials are becoming scarcer to find in their natural form, it is all the more critical that we begin to reuse and recycle them to preserve them for the future.

To further our work on the National Stakeholder Forum, I sat in on key stakeholder phone calls and worked with groups such as the U.S. Green Building Council, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the World Economic Forum. My weeks were always packed with meetings, ranging from intra-agency briefings to those with the U.N. Environmental Program (U.N.E.P.) that covered briefings from the G-7.

During my seven weeks at the E.P.A., I was shocked to realize just how much of the skills I had obtained from UniversalGiving had translated. Even the simplest tasks such as drafting professional emails to co-workers were something I had first learned to do during my time at UniversalGiving. At the E.P.A., I was able to manage time-sensitive tasks efficiently and thoroughly, to independently solve problems I encountered, and to easily adapt to changes in the workforce, all of which I attribute to my experience in UniversalGiving’s fast-paced environment.

Another reason I was excited to work at the E.P.A., a larger governmental agency, is because it would allow me to compare the work I did there with the work I did at UniversalGiving, a smaller-scale nonprofit. Both were driven by a similar mission of helping others, and I wanted to determine first hand, how the different organizational structures would play out in their work. Though I believe both sectors had their pros and cons, what struck me was the passion and kindness that were commonplace in both work environments. There was not a time when I smiled more, or felt as passionate about my work than when I was working with like-minded individuals at the E.P.A. or at UniversalGiving. Oftentimes, it is easy to become discouraged and to feel alone when facing a battle as large as tackling poverty in developing nations, or combating climate change. However, through my time in both organizations, I have come to understand the value of community. Community is what keeps us grounded in our goals despite hardships, it is what keeps us passionate, and it is what gives positive change a place in the world.

NGO Spotlight: Global Partners for Development

Global Partners: Community-Driven Development for Education

Global Partners for Development has relentlessly pursued long-term solutions to the needs facing East African communities for over 35 years. Although they have always practiced community-driven development, Global Partners has recently incorporated a more school-centric model. When they decided to try something new by adjusting their model of work, they knew they had to be committed to getting it right. Global Partners identifies schools with exceptionally low education indicators and partners with local communities to increase civic engagement, bolster local capacity for project management, and invest in community-driven projects at their schools.


Why the change? In short, while Global Partners was proud of their long history and the work they’ve done throughout the years, they face the challenge of impacting even more disenfranchised communities in the future. More than 4.5 million children in East Africa remain out of school. Children from poor households are less likely to have access to education than those from rich households, and females from rural areas are often the worst off of all. Waterborne diseases remain rampant in East Africa and cause chronic illness and death, especially among young children. Global Partners believes their new school-centric model will better enable them to implement scalable projects and achieve sustainable results in a larger number of communities.


Why schools? Quality education impacts every development outcome for generations. Research has proven that an educated child, and especially an educated girl, will have a smaller, healthier family with an improved livelihood. The hope is that by partnering directly with schools and communities and engaging and training them to work together, Global Partners will improve the greater communities’ perception of the importance of education and further associate education with village and family development.

Why engage the community? Engaged citizens are more confident in their ability to participate in community development, and community engagement fosters local ownership. Local ownership helps ensure the long-term sustainability of development projects.


What’s next? Based on indicators relatedto poverty and education, Global Partners has concluded that the Singida Region of Tanzania is in critical need of support for its public schools. Learn more about the specific plans Global Partners for Development has for Singida as well as other opportunities, such as donating to secondary school scholarships for girls in Uganda, on the UniversalGiving website. 

Youth Speaks: The Power of Language

By Pamela Hawley, CEO of UniversalGiving®

What a joy to visit Ashley Smiley and Gabriel Cortez at Youth Speaks. Youth Speaks has such a variety of programs and what I enjoyed the most is that it is not just about creativity; the program creates a long term community, life network and actually follows the kids through their life chapters. While it starts off with training in writing, the children are also exposed to numerous events regarding how to live life in a positive way, job connections, and as Ashley said, “we create a true family”.

Here are some of the programs with which I was very impressed. First, they have After School Programs all over. They are pretty much in every state and in multiple places across the Bay Area including San Francisco, The Mission, Berkeley, Oakland, etc., and in these after school programs they focus on writing.

Next, there is Open Mic. Open Mic allows you to practice and get your poetry up and on the stage. There isn’t a grading system and there’s no pressure. It is an opportunity for you to put forth your voice.

When you feel you are ready, then you can go on to formal competitions. Each stage you advance to, you must have new original content, and you are graded.

Finally, if you continue to progress, you may be chosen to be a part of a team referred to as Brave New Voices. Brave New Voices usually consists of at least five poetry creators who create three minute and thirty-second long poems. You have a coach and you go to a national competition.

With this support, there is a clear way to express yourself in a non-pressured way and in a supportive community. There is also a way to continue to ascend and become more advanced if you so choose. I like this as it doesn’t put pressure on the kids, but also shows them that there is a pathway to greater success if they like.

What is notable about Youth Speaks is that they also provide many different types of experiences. They have an annual event called Life is Living; they feature dance classes, sustainable foods, a petting zoo and speakers. Their point is to expose you to all the positive things that go on in life, and how you can live a life that is connected to the earth and doing good. It is a good example of how to make choices in your day-to-day, such as choosing organic foods or composting.

Most impressive is their work with accomplished authors. This summer, Ashley worked with Anna Deavere Smith at some of the poetry competitions. They also work closely with the San Francisco Jazz Festival and every year they have their annual competition/event. This year it will be held at the War Memorial Opera House. It is quite the impressive array of events that can meet every person’s need.

One of the most appealing aspects of Youth Speaks is its informality as well as access to elegance. You can simply take a class, which feels like a natural extension of school, or you can progress up to the heights and actually go to the Opera House for an amazing celebration with high-level authors and speakers. It is essential that our youth experience both of the following: 1) comfortable and ease of involvement and 2) access to experiences that they would never have. If you have the former, then introducing the latter is much easier. We want to open up the children’s minds as to how special they are and what they can do. They should be going to the Opera House just like everyone else.

Recently, I have been looking in to volunteer opportunities as well as helping coach some improv that could help students at YouthSpeaks when they get distracted or frozen on stage. Since I work at a nonprofit, I also felt it was critical to provide a donation. When people ask for a site visit it takes up valuable program time and we need to make sure that the people working so hard on the ground are supported.


Youth Speaks is a San Francisco based organization that seeks to empower youth by giving them the power to harness their own voices through written and spoken language. Youth Speaks is a leading nonprofit in the Spoken Word community, and currently provides programming and educational opportunities throughout the Bay Area and on a national scale.

Make a Wish Come True

By Cheryl Mahoney

“People want to help people.”

This was a thought expressed by Dave Girgenti in a recent USA Today article: “Website Connects Needy to the Charitable.”  Girgenti is the founder of Wish Upon a Hero, which does just what the USA Today headline suggests: connecting people in need with people who want to help.
Wish Upon a Hero is a website where anyone can post their wish–and anyone can help fulfill it.  I glanced over the wishes on the front page, and found requests for gifts for family members, pleas for help to make a rent payment, hope that someone will assist with schooling, a need for special equipment for a handicapped sibling…some wishes are big, but many are just people who need a little bit of help.  Check it out and see what you find, but be warned–some stories are heartbreaking.

It reminds me that what most of us probably take for granted–money for rent, the ability to buy a gift–can be someone else’s dearest wish.

So often people say, “I wish I could help someone, but I don’t know how.”  And so many people are saying, “I wish someone could help me.”  Wish Upon a Hero brings these two groups together –and it’s working.  According to the counter on the site, almost 31,000 wishes have been granted so far.  With those results, one could almost imagine they’re using pixie dust!

Taking the Leap: A Teenager’s Experience Volunteering and Traveling Solo in Asia

By: Gaby Alemán


For many reasons, the world seems much larger and more intimidating than it really is. We look at the globe and we’re hesitant to take a step out of our neighborhood for fear of the unknown— but you know what? That fear of the unknown is exactly what pushed me to leave. Maybe fear isn’t the correct word… Curiosity seems more appropriate. It was with a surging curiosity that I set out last September on my gap year, fresh outta high school, to travel to Asia for eight months.


I was, and am, part of a fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill called the Global Gap Year Fellowship, which gives incoming freshmen the ability to defer their enrollment and gives them scholarship money in order to pursue a volunteer based gap year. With the encouragement of my university and an oversized backpack clumsily strapped to my back, I headed off to Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Indonesia.

Now, you can guess that traveling alone internationally at 18 is nerve wracking; heck, it still is for people twice my age. But what I realized when I found myself crossing from the domestic flights section at the JFK airport to the Etihad airlines gate, where I was so clearly the only young backpacker in a line of colorfully ethnic women in saris and men in traditional robes and turbans, was that I wasn’t actually alone. Everyone I asked, for the most part, helped me in whatever I needed; they answered my questions and calmed my nerves. When you open yourself to the chance of being approached, when you’re cautious, but still willing to smile at people, you’d be amazed at the help you can receive and the people you cross paths with.

Traveling from country to country was a breeze after the first initial dive into the chaos of airports and immigration. My time in Sri Lanka served as a time of reflection; I was thrown into a mix of the Sinhalese and Tamil cultures, along with exposure to Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism, in an unfamiliar place with a language I couldn’t decipher. I worked alongside volunteers at an orphanage where I learned that true love and dedication are fickle things; things that needed to be extended fairly to all of the orphans, even the ones that pull your hair and splash around in puddles of pee. My time there challenged me and showed me what I was made of, but also liberated me from myself. I’ve lived my life walking a tightrope, self-conscious of my decisions and actions and cowering in fear at the thought of messing up. Sri Lanka made me look down and realize I was scared of a tightrope a foot above the ground. I saw that if I fell, I could get right back up and keep moving forward with more experience and a lesson learned.

Singapore, in contrast, was a wakeup call: I had been traveling around a third world country, taking cold showers and dreaming under mosquito nets, catching rides on roaring, packed buses and haggling tooth and nail in the markets; now I was thrown into the hustle and bustle I had known so well what seemed like a lifetime ago, aka three months. Chic malls towered over me and mocked my flowing hippie skirt and battered sandals during my exploration of the small city-country for a week while I awaited my Indonesian visa. Sure, I’ll admit I missed hot water and toasted bread, but all of this luxury? It was disorienting; even when I was toured around by some passionate Singaporean friends did I lack the enthusiasm for this clean and orderly society. Don’t get me wrong— Singapore is a proud sight to behold… But it wasn’t for me.

This strange disdain bled into my first month in Bali, Indonesia, which I spent in Ubud. For the month of December I rolled my eyes at tourists paying for overly priced meals and thinking they were spiritual because they attended a yoga course given by a westerner. January could not come quickly enough when I found myself transported to my definition of paradise: a small rural village in the northern region of Karangasem. I lived with a fluctuating number of volunteers in a small school where we taught English, next to the family that founded it, for four months. And I flourished. I found a home where previously I had considered myself nomadic; I learned to love the hard working, wonderful kids who brightened my day, every day, with a simple laugh or hug; I found spirituality surrounded by a people so dedicated to their beautiful religion, bowing my head and praying in my sarong for the first time in months. I marveled at the transparency of a smile, the way it communicates in any and every language and helped me connect with those I couldn’t understand verbally. I shared stories and emotions and laughter with people from all over the world; I cared about the locals and they graciously welcomed me into their community.


Here’s the thing I learned about traveling and volunteering— it’s a selfish thing. It’s the best and healthiest selfishness in the world. Sure, I was there to teach English. And considering the school’s students depended on the tourism industry to live successful futures, I’d say I was contributing. But that wasn’t the point, not completely. Traveling and experiencing another country and culture first hand— it made me aware. It exposed me to human mindfulness and the wonderful feats that humanity is capable of. I was surrounded with so much love and joy that every morning my eyes flew open with a gratitude for being alive; for having been able to experience what I did.

I am no savior and I am not special for what I did. It is not a difficult thing to do, really. At 18 years old, I had no special skill to offer; all I had was my positivity and perspective and enthusiasm. Now, I’m back in the US with a completely new way of looking at and appreciating life, one that I hope will carry me through my ambitions and goals in life. And I’m more than sure it will.


Gaby Alemán is a UniversalGiving Ambassador.