In the spirit of giving

Ann Dowsett Johnston December 25 2000

In the spirit of giving

Ann Dowsett Johnston December 25 2000

In the spirit of giving

Ann Dowsett Johnston

Rahul Raj is the first to admit that he is not a big guy: five-foot-six, and all of 125 lb. “soaking wet.” Not a big guy, and no, not much of an appetite. Little wonder, then, that when Raj signed up for the one-size-fits-all meal plan at Wilfrid Laurier University back in 1993, his first thought was: how can I make use of my unused meal points? His second thought was a brilliant one: why not persuade students to donate their unused points to purchase groceries for food banks and community agencies? That second thought spawned

Meal Exchange, one of the most creative non-profit organizations in Canada, run almost entirely by university students and recent grads—proof positive that Raj has a big heart and even bigger dreams. What the 17-year-old business student launched in his first term at university has now expanded to 10 campuses across Canada, involving more than 450 student volunteers. Once a term, students pile into minivans and distribute the food: formula to women’s shelters, vegetables to teen drop-in centres. On a single Saturday last month, students at the University of Guelph delivered more than 5,000 lb. of food to 10 local agencies.

This fall, Meal Exchange was first runnerup for the prestigious Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation. “Tradi-

tionally, the community has tended to view the student as a beer-drinking, sign-stealing menace,” says Raj. “This program empowers students to address the problems of society.”

Yes, the children of the baby-boom generation may have dot-com dreams dancing in their heads, but they are no slouches when it comes to social activism. Ask Raj what motivates him, and he, like many of his peers, will cite his parents’ example. But there are other factors: a strong global awareness, and a firm belief that his generation can solve essential social problems. At 25, Raj works by day as a brand manager for Ferrero Canada, in charge of Nutella and Tic

Tac. But in his off-hours, he devotes body and soul to Meal Exchange. Last year, he took out a $60,000 personal line of credit to fund the program. He is

confident that by 2004, Meal Exchange will have a presence on every campus in Canada, and begin expanding into the United States. But his dreams don’t stop there. He has a vision of developing what he calls a “social incubator” on every continent: a foundation to fund student solutions to social problems on both a local and global level. “In the end, this

isn’t just about how many people we have fed, but how many students we have inspired to take an active role,” says Raj. “I believe we have the ability to change the face of the world.” What Raj is harnessing in students’ off-hours, others are harnessing directly through the curriculum. Across the United States, hundreds of universities now offer service learning, a form of experiential education that integrates public service into the curriculum. Stanford University, for instance, offers up to 30 courses with a service component,

including an engineering course on affordable housing. Students are involved in philanthropy, policy work, serving on boards—reciprocal relationships where the community partner serves as both teacher and recipient. Earlier this year, Pierre Omidyar, the 33-year-old founder of eBay, donated $ 15 million to Tuffs University near Boston to establish the University College of Citizenship and Public Service.

North of the border, the concept is gaining ground as well. Last year, the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation donated more than $ 1 million to the Service Learning Initiative at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. And in January, the University of British Columbia established a volunteer program,

matching 50 students with 12 community agencies in Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown Eastside—a clear precursor to a service-learning program. Chris White-DeVries, a third-year science student who hopes to become an emergency-room doctor, spends four hours each week playing cards or serving lunch at the Living Room, a drop-in centre for people with a history of mental-health problems. Says Margo Fryer, director of UBC’s Learning Exchange: “These students have inherited a sense of social justice. They really reaffirm one’s faith in human evolution.”

Two weeks ago, Fryer’s program received a $1-million do-

nation from a UBC alumnus. just sort of gift that the indefatigable Raj is certain will come his way. Last week, Meal Exchange spent its

few remaining funds. The $60,000 line of credit disappeared long ago. “I believe with everything in me, that my vision will work,” says Raj, “but I’m in a very interesting spot right now. There are lots of venture capitalists, but few venture philanthropists.” One can only hope that in this, the season of giving, his angel will appear.