Student nonprofit aids Zambian orphans

In the city of Ndola, Zambia, 120 orphans each have a pair of brand-new, black leather shoes made especially for them. The shoes, which will complete the children's school uniforms, are their ticket to an education and were a gift from a nonprofit foundation started by two Cornell students this year.

This past spring, Ricky Panzer '13 and Alex Friedman '13 launched Signature Donations with a broad mission: to fight the causes and effects of poverty. Purchasing the custom-made shoes for children at Haven of Hope Orphanage -- an effort dubbed Project Ndola -- was their first fundraising venture.

After incorporating Signature Donations in March, Panzer and Friedman led the effort to raise $2,100 to have the shoes ordered, purchased and delivered by a local factory in Zambia. The children received their shoes in early September. Panzer and Friedman particularly wanted the shoes manufactured in Zambia, in order to help stimulate the economy.

The students chose the orphan shoe project after learning the dilemma that many Zambian children living in poverty face: To attend a government school, they need tuition, books and a uniform, which includes black leather shoes. For many, the shoes are prohibitively expensive -- effectively barring them from receiving an education.

Panzer and Friedman began a relationship with the orphanage through its director, whom they met through Panzer's father, a health education professional. Panzer, a computer science major, spent the summer drumming up support at home in northern New Jersey, leading fundraising teams of high school students and also speaking to Rotary Clubs.

On the opposite coast in California, Friedman led such efforts as a charitable garage sale, in which neighbors donated goods from which proceeds went to Project Ndola.

The organization's name reflects one of its main goals: To launch projects that address very specific needs. With regard to Ndola, Friedman explained, they wanted to do more than just collect or buy shoes and ship them to Africa, as many organizations do.

"We felt that if we didn't reach out to them and they didn't tell us exactly what they needed, it might never have been addressed," he said. "So we felt, hey, this is a great opportunity to do good for a specific cause."

Panzer and Friedman lived in nearby rooms in Mews Hall freshman year. Panzer had led a service club in high school and knew he wanted to continue serving in college, but didn't know exactly how.

A Hotel School major, Friedman came into the partnership with an eye for business. He already had started a company in high school called Deuces Wild, and he was looking for more projects. Starting a nonprofit, he said, was an appealing challenge.

The duo hopes to grow Signature Donations and recruit more Cornell students this year. They have ambitions for more fundraising ventures, including building a K-8 school in Zambia. It's important to them that their projects can be sustained once their involvement ends.

"The theory is there is a finite amount of change that needs to be implemented in order to do good for people," Panzer said. "And we want to reach that goal, and it can only be obtained through sustainable projects."

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Blaine Friedlander