Students at the University of Maryland got a few degrees closer to Kevin Bacon on Wednesday, and they didn’t need a walk-on role in Hollywood to d0 it.
The actor and philanthropist was in College Park to help judge the winners of the first “Do Good Challenge”, set up as part of a push by the school to promote philanthropy as a focus of academic and student life.
Winning the challenge was The Food Recovery Network, which developed a system for distributing leftover food from campus dining halls to homeless shelters.
Food Recovery Network President Ben Simon said the team would use the $5,000 prize money to buy reusable food containers – saving more money – and continue to expand their enterprise to other universities.
Since the challenge launched in February, more than 100 student groups raised awareness and tens of thousands of dollars for causes on campus, across the country and abroad. Six groups were selected by the staff at the School of Public Policy to make their pitch in front of an “American Idol”-style panel, which included Bacon. With him were “Today” show nutritionist Joy Bauer, and former Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams.
The presentations impressed the judges, who decided the order of the final three after the audience chose them via text message poll. When Students Helping Honduras Chapter President Sam Tiburzi left the audience wowed, Bacon, a veteran of more than 50 films, struggled for words, saying Tiburzi, a terrific public speaker, had an “obvious talent” and should use it.
Among the finalists was a group of sorority sisters working to raise awareness about breast cancer disease through Facebook and Twitter. The Terps men’s hockey team has been raising money to provide assistance dogs to war veterans. And “Leave One Take One” is creating a network for bartering services and used goods to prevent waste.
Two groups are also working on international projects. One is raising funds to fight muscular dystrophy in Nepal, and another is raising funds to finish building an elementary school in Honduras.
In 2007, Bacon set up SixDegrees.org, adopting a popular Internet meme that claims any Hollywood celebrity can be linked to Kevin Bacon by six degrees or less. The social networking website encourages charitable fundraising, and has raised millions for organizations of the donors’ choosing.
Bacon said he was inspired by longtime philanthropist the late Paul Newman, who “took this simple idea and was able to translate it into millions and millions of dollars of good work.”
“The idea with SixDegrees is to take me out of it” and allow the movement to continue from the grassroots level, he said. “It’s always been my dream to reach a million people [donating] $10, rather than 10 people with $1 million,” he said.
“So much of the idea of philanthropy is building relationships,” said Robert T. Grimm Jr., director of the Philanthropy and Nonprofit Management program at the school. He said he hopes Maryland will develop a “culture of philanthropy” through tailored non-profit management classes, and the outreach between those students and the rest of the community.
That culture is important for the future, says Dean Don Kettl, as charities struggle for funding. “We’re operating from the standpoint that government’s ability to fund things is not going to increase,” he said.
The conventional wisdom that the younger generation doesn’t care about “doing good” is false, and “if you develop the right approach,” students can be part of that force for good.