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Doing Good in Hard Times

Winners of Do Good Challenge to Be Announced Tonight in Virtual Ceremony

By Liam Farrell

Do Good Virtual Challenge graphic: dogood.umd.edu/challenge21

In the confusing early days of the pandemic, amid sudden shutdowns and strict quarantines, Elana Sichel ’21 was trying to figure out where she could make a difference. But she quickly found relying on Google was no way to identify where and how to help.

So Sichel and Hadassah Raskas, a friend who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, created Corona Connects, an online database that has assisted more than 13,000 people in exploring volunteer opportunities with 300 organizations across the United States. The effort is one of the six finalists in the 2021 Do Good Challenge, which will conclude tonight with the awarding of more than $20,000 in prize money.

“We were both looking for something to do during this, to shed some light and bring some positive moments out of this dark time,” Sichel said. “If we make volunteering easy for people, we are more likely to have a larger population volunteering.”

The annual Do Good Challenge is a campuswide competition for students to develop creative solutions for pressing social issues and demonstrate how they have made an impact through volunteering, fundraising, outreach and more. While the finalists would normally pitch their impact to a live audience and panel of judges, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic makes this year’s edition a virtual event throughout April with video pitches and Q&A sessions.

“It’s definitely a different Challenge,” said Cali Moore, program coordinator of UMD’s Do Good Institute, which hosts the competition. “But we hope what is exactly the same is we are highlighting impressive impact.”

The finalists are divided into project and venture tracks—projects are designed to maximize impact for a cause or existing organization through volunteering, fundraising and advocacy, while ventures are student-founded social enterprises that tackle social issues with innovative business models. First place in each category will receive $5,000, second place will receive $2,500, and third place will receive $1,000. Multiple audience-selected awards, including the $2,500 Neilom Foundation Audience Choice Award that the community voted for last month and text-to-vote opportunities will take place live during the premiere.  

The project-track finalists are:

  • Audelia Community Response Team (Alexandra Melinchok ’20 and Oneyda Hernandez ‘22), a mutual aid group that provides food and other essential resources in Langley Park and the surrounding community, with a focus on immigrant and Latinx communities;
  • Public Health Beyond Borders (Manasvinee Mayil Vahanan ’21 and Sara Hatfield ’21), an organization aiming to reduce health disparities and encourage cross-cultural learning with virtual training, services and advocacy; and
  • ROOTS Africa (Cedric Nwafor ’18, ’21 and Jeremy Schmidt ’21), which works with agriculture students in Africa and the U.S. to increase crop yields and better socioeconomic conditions for farming communities.

Including Corona Connects, the venture-track finalists are:

  • Chat Health (Jesse Anderson ’22 and Veeraj Shah ’21), which uses SMS chatbots and artificial intelligence to provide college students with medically accurate health information; and
  • STEPS (Sanketh Andhavarapu ’23 and Uzair Chaudhary ’23), which connects volunteers with K-12 families seeking affordable tutoring and college advising services, and donates profits to grants and scholarships for low-income youth. 

Teams are scored by expert judges based on their issue, idea, implementation and impact. Challenge winners are defined not just by the strength of their ideas, Moore said, but also by their past accomplishments and future potential.

“Impact is the key category,” she said, “to show that they have done the work and it is sustainable and they are creating lasting partnerships.”

For Sichel, creating a startup during a global pandemic has already been its own reward.

“This has been such a learning experience,” she said. “I feel really proud of what the team accomplished and in such a crazy time period.”

Schools & Departments:

School of Public Policy

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