Greeks Give Back Challenge Encourages Service, Social Entrepreneurship

Hidden in the shadows cast by the University of Virginia's white pillared buildings, some residents of Charlottesville, Va. are regularly forced to go without food for themselves and their families. This is the "forgotten population" according to Anna Karnaze, a first-year graduate student at UVA who has set out to fight hunger in the small college town. And as the winner of The Greeks Give Back Challenge, a contest in which students compete for grant money to help finance community service projects, she will have the funding she needs to get started.

"When people think of Charlottesville they think of UVA first and foremost, so the rest of Charlottesville is kind of forgotten," Karnaze told The Huffington Post. "There's a population that is in need and they're overshadowed by the university."

Karnaze, and her three UVA teammates, pitched their proposal to a panel of judges alongside teams from New York University, University of Illinois-Chicago, Georgetown University, and Harvard University. The competition took place this past weekend at Georgetown's campus in Washington, DC and was sponsored by The Next Generation Initiative, a non-profit educational group founded by Greek-American leaders to encourage service and social entrepreneurship.

Karnaze will use the prize money to help cover transportation and operational costs for her group, which collects leftover dining hall food from UVA and from local restaurants, and facilitates its transportation to local hubs where the food is distributed directly to the hungry. "We're a smaller area, we're not like Boston or New York with a lot of organizations to help out. When this competition came up, I saw an opportunity," she added.

"I think the event was pretty extraordinary," said Leon Stavrou, the Executive Director of The Next Generation Initiative. "It's a young person's world. They're the ones who have to make the changes."

The other projects that were presented at the competition included a user-friendly online platform to share low-cost health solutions, a plan to host a day of community service at a charter school in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC, a resource center to help immigrants adjust to life in New York City, and a free legal services program for low income residents in the Cambridge, Mass. area.

Ted Leonsis, an early internet entrepreneur and founding member of the Initative’s advising board, said he was “blown away with how articulate and passionate every group was." At a panel discussion following the student’s presentations, he offered to finance himself the projects that didn’t win. Leonsis is the CEO and majority owner of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the NBA's Washington Wizards, the NHL's Washington Capitals, the WNBA's Washington Mystics, and the Verizon Center. He previously served as a senior executive at AOL, The Huffington Post's parent company, retiring from active management in 2006 after more than a dozen years at the company.

He was joined on the panel with other prominent Greek Americans including Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of The Washington Monthly, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President of the Walmart Foundation, and Rep. John Sarbanes (D-M.D.). The group discussed the importance of serving the less fortunate, and emphasized that contributions at the local level can lead to action on a larger scale. "When it comes to giving back, if you can find right in front of you an opportunity to do it, it will lead you very naturally to the next step," Rep. Sarbanes said.

The Greeks Giving Back Competition is representative of a larger trend of organizations using crowdsourcing methods to identify ideas which serve the public good. The Huffington Post announced last month that it too would launch a project to encourage young people from around the country to submit creative solutions to societal problems. The IGNITEgood Millenial Impact Challenge will award 10 different grants worth $10,000 each to young, innovative leaders who seek to better the world through service.

Natalie Alhonte, a founding co-director of IGNITEgood, said "The resources are out there, the creative minds are out there, it's just a question of giving people an opportunity."

Young people are helping to lead the effort, according the Alhonte. "The Millenial generation lives up to the hype of being a generation of meaning. They're willing to seek out creative ways of using what they know to find solutions to society's most pressing problems."

The IGNITEgood Millenial Impact Challege received hundreds of submissions and will announce the winners next month.