MacKenzie Roux was in high school the first time she visited orphanages in Romania. The experience left her broken and angry.
Children are not orphaned there, because their parents are dead. A post-communist culture still pervades – allowing children to be abandoned for any reason. They are seen as unwanted, undesired and unlovable.
“They grow up knowing and believing ugly words about themselves,” Roux said. “Eventually, it hardens many hearts, resulting in an anger-driven, fight-for-life mentality that permeates these orphanages.”
On a second trip last summer, Roux realized she couldn’t fix the situation, but she could make a difference. Even a small one.
Missionaries in Romania singled out the Georgia College senior, asking her to come back and run a summer camp. Honored but baffled, Roux asked her parents how she – a student – could possibly raise at least $10,000 needed to begin such a venture.
They said: Start a nonprofit.
Two weeks later, Roux had done the paperwork and gotten nonprofit status from the IRS. She put her mother, an avid volunteer, on the board. Family friends who know business, fundraising and finance were added. She started a PayPal account, got a domain for a website and started a Facebook page.
Now the political science major plans to delay law school to nurture her newly-formed nonprofit, The 1:27 Project. Based on James chapter 1 verse 27 – looking after orphans in distress – Roux’s program will operate a weeklong camp every year for orphans around the world, starting next summer in Romania.
“My parents instilled in me you’re not just on this earth to promote yourself. You are here to love others, and you are here to make a difference,” Roux said. “If you put any type of effort towards that, you will help somebody and that is what makes it worthwhile.
Roux is the second Georgia College student this year to start her own nonprofit.
She and alumna Natalie Flanders – who founded Girls Grow Inc. last February as a senior psychology major – prove what research shows about this generation: They are serious about social justice. Strongly-held convictions guide the choices they make, said Dr. Amanda Reinke, assistant professor of anthropology.
In the past 15 years, five other GC alumni started nonprofits after graduation.
More students are volunteering their time to help others too – a trend on college campuses that has resurfaced in recent years, said Sara Faircloth. She is the director of Georgia College’s Nonprofit Leadership Alliance, one of only three programs like it in the state and 75 nationwide.
Of about 20 students every year who finish the university’s three-year-certificate nonprofit program – 90 percent go on to work for nonprofits. Georgia College’s GIVE Center has also been “very effective at inspiring many students to do more,” Faircloth said.
“Helping people is our philosophy. It’s part of the DNA at Georgia College,” said Kendall Stiles, senior director of Community Engagement.
“I think it’s probably this age group,” Stiles said. “They join student organizations and causes and volunteer, and they start to think: Oh my gosh, I can actually use my degree to make a difference. Maybe I won’t make as much money, but I can still do something I like and believe in.”
When it comes to college students founding nonprofits, however, Faircloth believes Flanders and Roux are the unusual exception. Many like the idea of turning service into a career, she said. But few understand the hardships involved in creating a charitable industry from scratch.
Even so, Roux and Flanders managed to do it – while still going to classes and earning a degree.
Believing in something and wanting to help others is the key.
Flanders talks of a power greater than herself that keeps her going. From her studies at Georgia College, she knew the enterprise would take her outside her comfort zone. It isn't easy asking people for money, doing legal paperwork, learning accounting and building a board of directors, she said.
Her role-model program for adolescent girls grew last spring to more than 40 volunteers at local Milledgeville schools. Now Flanders is opening Girls Grow Inc. chapters at the University of Georgia, Georgia State University and Valdosta State University. The pilot program at Georgia State also benefits homeless girls at Covenant House Atlanta.
“I had some things go wrong very early on in the game,” Flanders said, “This was a game-changing moment for me, and a chance to chose love over fear.”
Roux, too, looks to something greater. Her faith in God makes the gargantuan task of starting a nonprofit less daunting. Now Roux dreams of expanding her weeklong camp for orphans to Ethiopia, Honduras, Mexico, Haiti, Greece, Uganda, Ecuador and Costa Rica.
Her Southern Politics professor, Dr. Keith Lee, believes Roux can do it. She’s “one of the best students I’ve had the privilege of teaching,” he said. It may be a risk to postpone law school and serve others – but he wasn’t surprised by her “courageous choice.”
Roux knows she can’t help every infant – like one baby girl who lay untouched so long, the back of her head was flat. She can’t keep children from using toys as weapons or provide enough food to keep them from fighting over scraps.
But the nonprofit will allow her to continue holding countless little hands that reach for her. She will continue to hug bullies, who need love the most. She’ll wipe away tears and pick dandelions to make flower crowns with little girls.
“I cannot fix the abandonment,” Roux said. “I can’t fix corruption. I can’t fix Romania. I cannot change the world. But the beautiful thing is – I’m not called to do that, I’m simply called to love the unloved.”