From LearnServe Ethiopia to Cambio Coffee Shanghai: Interview with Sebastian Martin

Sebastian Martin is a proud alum of LearnServe Ethiopia 2004, the very first LearnServe cohort of students and teachers to travel and serve abroad. That journey inspired his next decade of travel, community service, political activism, and eventually his calling for social entrepreneurship. In 2013, he founded Cambio Coffee – an organic, direct trade, specialty coffee company based in Shanghai, China. As a social enterprise, Cambio Coffee offers price premiums to small farmers and cooperatives, and reinvests 5% of its gross profits into development projects in coffee producing communities. As an emerging coffee brand in China, Cambio also offers spaces for cultural events, community empowerment, and charitable fundraising in its cafes. Sebastian has been a mentor and adviser to dozens of early stage entrepreneurs, a teacher of leadership to high school and university students, and the President of Fresh Start Shanghai – a Rotary club dedicated to empowering NGOs and social entrepreneurs in China. At LearnServe International’s 15th Anniversary Gala: Social Innovation Starts With You, he will be honored with our Entrepreneurship Award.

We recently spoke with Sebastian about his time with LearnServe, founding Cambio Coffee, and advice for young social entrepreneurs.

Did the LearnServe Ethiopia trip change aspects of how you interact with the world?

Absolutely. It’s hard to pinpoint one experience… the whole trip was transformative for me, and the collection of memories, and places, and people that I encountered all were important in changing my worldview. Some experiences are more poignant, and I can still recall them clearly… playing with children and holding the most innocent infants at an AIDS orphanage, seeing a 6 AM sunrise and the most beautiful sprawling valley atop of one of the highest mountains in the area, witnessing the chaos of a food distribution center with people lined up around the block, being humbled by the quiet dignity of Ethiopian farmers toiling in the countryside, being welcomed into the home of a local villager to offer us potatoes, the dedication of local teachers in the schools we assisted, the beaming smile of a kid who wanted to know where I was from, getting to know Addis Ababa with local residents… all of these experiences helped crystallize my desire to dedicate my life to helping others. After Ethiopia, part of me wanted to start a movement, a revolution, some world-changing innovation; and another part of me was incredibly humbled and content with starting a small initiative, convinced that if I could improve even one person or family, my work would be meaningful. The trip opened up my mind to the realities of developing countries beyond the Bolivia of my youth where I visited family. It made me aware of a global human narrative, of a commonality between all people, and of a struggle that involved all of us – facts that many people in the US seemed unaware of. It made me more empathetic and helped define my life’s purpose of wanting to create change and improve the lives of others. I hope a positive and empowering legacy continues long after I’m gone.

What inspired you to found Cambio Coffee in Shanghai? 

After finishing my studies, I wanted to start a social enterprise that could empower communities globally. I chose to focus on the coffee industry to tackle some of the environmental and humanitarian issues at it’s core. I wanted to create a business that didn’t exploit poor farmers and poor countries, as is unfortunately the norm in many industries including coffee. I wanted to create a direct supply chain that could empower small farmers and cooperatives that were already having a positive social impact in their communities through social programs. Like with my LearnServe Ethiopia experience, it was international travel and direct exposure to the realities of rural coffee farming regions – particularly experiencing the lives of coffee farmers throughout Latin America – that fueled my desire to start Cambio Coffee. Visiting farms and interacting with farmers – witnessing their desires, passions, and struggles – was the inspiration and early conception behind Cambio Coffee’s mission. I completed my entrepreneurial masters program partly in China, which informed me of a much larger and more dynamic emerging market beyond the US for a potential coffee venture. I was convinced that my future was in Shanghai, so that became my foundation for creating a commercially successful global social enterprise.

What would you like young change-makers to understand about social entrepreneurship?

  • Every product and value chain has the potential for social impact. Think deeply about where your product is from, what resources it uses, and who is needed to create it. Then think about how you can change or improve your value chain so that it has a greater impact.
  • You can be a social entrepreneur in any sector, whether you have a non-profit, government, or corporate job. As long as you identify social problems and are innovative and creative about solving them, you are a social entrepreneur.
  • Embrace what others interpret as your weaknesses, and turn them into your strengths. Your social mission, empathy, and passion for helping others are what will differentiate you in a competitive global market.
  • Leverage your ability to work in between the blurred lines of non-profits, government entities, and corporate sectors. Share resources and translate messages from all sides to maximize your success and impact.
  • Your social mission and integrity will keep pushing you, getting you through the darkest times and uncertainties inherent in any form of entrepreneurship.
  • Identify what makes you mad. The issues that affect your life personally, and the injustices you can’t bear to see in the world, those are the problems that you must solve. Never give up on solving them, and never forget about the fuel that started your fire.

What advice would you give current LearnServe students?

Allow yourself to be transformed by LearnServe programs. Apply your learning to your everyday actions, and be mindful of how you interact with your world and the people around you. Social entrepreneurship can be a very fulfilling and rewarding career path. Take it seriously… and if you feel authentic fulfillment never give it up.

America at 21: Interview with Sophia Pink

LearnServe Fellow (2013) Sophia Pink has launched an independent research project highlighting American young adults across the country. We asked her about the project, titled America at 21, and her vision of social innovation.

What is the mission of America at 21?

Twenty-one-year-olds are at a turning point in their lives. At the same time, America today is at an inflection point. We’re more connected than ever before, yet also more divided. The summer before I turned 21, I set out on a journey to find out: What is it like to be 21 in the United States? How are 21-year-olds thinking about their own future and the future of America?

One goal of the project is to give people my age an idea of how their peers are thinking about the country. Are their hopes and fears drastically different from someone living in another part of the country? A second goal is to help other generations understand how the people who are just entering adulthood are thinking about the future.

What have you accomplished so far?

This past summer, I drove 6,000 miles through 24 states and interviewed fifty 21-year-olds from all walks of life. Armed with a microphone, an iPhone camera, and a list of questions, I conducted interviews everywhere from a church in Detroit, to a dorm outside of Boston, to a cattle ranch in rural Alabama. I asked young people questions about their own future (Ex. What is your greatest fear? What is your biggest hope?) and questions about the future of America (Ex. If you could change one thing about America, what would it be?).

I made it from Washington, DC to Los Angeles, CA with dozens of hours of interview tapes, 50 photo portraits, and a deep appreciation for the US highway system. Now, I’m back in college analyzing all the data I have and preparing to share it with a wider audience.

What have you enjoyed most or learned the most from while working on this project?

The media often portrays young people as naval-gazers who are obsessed with their social media profiles and absorbed in their safe spaces. But I asked 21-year-olds: what would make a meaningful life for you? No matter where I travelled, I heard the same refrain: young people wanted to “make a mark” on the world. Everyone from construction workers in Pennsylvania to college students in California said that they didn’t want to pass away without having an impact on others.

It’s gives me hope to see a generation guided by purpose. Employers, educators, and organizations don’t need to worry about lazy millennials — they simply need to harness this desire for impact, and as one interviewee said, “Give us the resources. Allow us because we understand, we live in it, this is our America.”

How did your experience in the LearnServe Fellows program influence your understanding of social innovation?

It’s so much easier not to do something new than it is to take the risk of creating something. So the default for most of us is to leave the world as it is. LearnServe flips this: it assumes that all young people can and will create something that matters. This is the core of social innovation that I learned at LearnServe — that no matter our age or background, our default mode should not be to passively accept the world as it is, but to actively look for ways to make it better.

Learn more about America at 21 on Sophia’s website and Instagram page.

Change-maker and Peace-Maker

LearnServe Alumna Yasmine Arrington Selected for the Peace First Prize

“When I say ‘Peace,’ You say “Games,’” echoed as a refrain through my college experience.

I was initially drawn to the way Eric Dawson – founder of Peace Games, now Peace First – understood the problem he saw in Boston, and across the country.  Society looks at young people as victims of violence, perpetrators of violence, and witnesses to violence.  Why don’t we look to young people as peace-makers and problem-solvers?

Eric’s question is so obvious, yet so powerful.  It has stuck with me, through those afternoons inspiring sixth and seventh grade students in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood – my first real taste of teaching.  And it has guided each conversation I’ve had with our LearnServe Fellows over the past 8 years.

I believe in the power of young people to create change.  Today’s middle, high school, and college students are not simply vessels for knowledge and candidates for future impact.  They are leaders today.

Yasmine Arrington, LearnServe Alum and Peace First Prize winner on Times Square

Yasmine Arrington, LearnServe Alum and Peace First Prize winner on Times Square

Few students I’ve worked with embody this better than Yasmine Arrington.  I first met Yasmine in September 2009 when she joined a cohort of peers from across the DC area as a LearnServe Fellow.  Yasmine stood out from the start.  She has a contagious smile, polite laugh, and is always alert, ready to dive into any conversation with a thoughtful question or comment.

When we asked what issues made her mad, she didn’t miss a beat.  She shared how her mom passed away when she was little, and how her dad has been in prison most of the time that she’s been alive.  At that point in time she had had little relationship with him, beyond the occasional phone call.  She has been blessed with a supportive and engaged grandmother, yet continues to face the obstacles that come with being the child of an incarcerated parent.

If Yasmine had chosen to walk the path of disaffection – to feel the world owes her something – you might understand.  But Yasmine’s outlook is just the opposite.  She has taken her story, her life, and translated it into an inspiration to help others succeed.

Yasmine quickly honed in on her social venture idea: ScholarCHIPS.  Well before she submitted her first college application, wrote her first scholarship essay, or set foot on campus she was already acutely aware of the challenges others in her demographic faced.  Attending college was by no means a given for many children of incarcerated parents.  Might financial support, mentorship, and a network of peers help to break the cycle of incarceration?

Fast forward six years.  Under Yasmine’s leadership, ScholarCHIPS is a thriving non-profit organization that has already raised well over $75,000 and has awarded 23 college scholarships to children of incarcerated parents.  I am honored to serve on her growing Board of Directors, and excited by her ambition to strengthen the networks of support she is able to offer each scholar, grow the pool of students she supports, and play an active role in a national conversation around children of incarcerated parents.

Yasmine has not chosen to sit back and wait for someone else to solve this problem.  She is not willing to simply watch as her peers struggle with the challenge of a close family member in prison.  Instead, Yasmine has chosen the route of mentor, visionary, leader, and role model.  She sets a compelling example for other young people of what it looks like to be a peace-maker and problem-solver.

It is therefore with great pride – for Yasmine, for ScholarCHIPS, and for the young people she inspires – that we share that Yasmine Arrington has been selected recipient of the 2015 Peace First Prize.

The Peace First Prize is a national award recognizing youth peacemakers, ages 8-22, who are leaders focused on making lasting social change in their communities by connecting across lines of difference with compassion, standing up for others and ideals with courage, and creating collaborative change by leading with others. The winners will receive a 2-year, $25,000 Fellowship to further their peacemaking work.  Yasmine is one of five young people, ages 10-22, from across the country to be awarded the 2015 Peace First Prize.

Congratulations, Yasmine.  And congratulations Peace First for raising the profile of our emerging change-makers and peace-makers.


For More Information:

Peace First |

ScholarCHIPS |


LearnServe Alum Yasmine Arrington in Washington Post

We are excited to share that LearnServe alumna Yasmine Arrington, founder of ScholarCHIPS, was featured in the Washington Post.  (In case you missed it, click on the image below for the online edition.)

Columnist Petula Dvorak has followed Yasmine from when she first pitched ScholarCHIPS at the LearnServe Panels and Venture Fair in 2010 all the way to her graduation from Elon University last Saturday.  ScholarCHIPS is breaking the cycle of incarceration through college scholarships, mentorship, dialogue, and advocacy on behalf of children of incarcerated parents.  We are inspired by Yasmine’s example, and look forward to all that she – and all our other LearnServe alumni graduating college this spring – will accomplish as they enter the next phase of their careers.


Yasmine headline

Yasmine article

To read the full story online, click on the image above or here.  You may also enjoy Petula Dvorak’s 2010 and 2012 Washington Post columns about Yasmine and ScholarCHIPS.


Tracing Innovation

Introducing the 2015 LearnServe Innovation Award Winners

The person next to you on the Metro sneezes.  Was it allergies?  The flu?  Something worse?  As the scenarios race through your mind, they boil down to one question: Will I get sick too?

Now there’s an app for that.

Meet Rohan Suri, founder of kTrace, a tool that is changing how we fight epidemics.  The primary tool used to fight epidemics — think Ebola, measles, or flu — is to identify and isolate all contacts of an infected individual.  But can you really remember everyone you saw over three weeks, before you begin exhibiting any symptoms?  And what about the strangers you encountered, but can never identify?

The app kTrace uses Bluetooth technology to record who you come into contact with, and for how long.  When a user reports feeling unwell, patients and medical professionals can authorize kTrace to send a notification to all contacted individuals so they can monitor their own health, and seek immediate medical attention before they infect others.  (The app is available for Android here.)

Rohan is a winner of the 2015 LearnServe Innovation Award (Fairfax County category).  He represents one of the 46 student teams led by LearnServe Fellows from across the DC Metro area who pitched their social venture ideas at the 6th Annual LearnServe Panels and Venture Fair on Thursday, April 23 at the Maret School.

Winners of the Innovation Award receive pro bono professional consultations from professionals at Deloitte, ICF International, M&T Bank, and Social Driver.



DC | Winner, DC Public and Charter Schools Category

Jamese Mangum, Black Girls Love STEM Too

Washington Math Science Technology Public Charter High School

Jamese looks at the lack of African American women in the STEM field, and realizes that unless we intervene early in the pipeline — at the middle and high school level — this pattern will continue to repeat itself.  Black Girls Love STEM Too offers a tiered solution: established professionals will share their experiences with the young women at her school; these high school students will in turn visit elementary and middle schools to inspire, teach, and mentor the girls there.  They will share the stories of successful African American women in STEM, and host career fairs to expose students to potential career opportunities.


DC | Runner-Up, DC Public and Charter Schools Category

Brendan Epton, District Grinding

E.L. Haynes Public Charter School

Brendan watches his peers struggling to find jobs, and discouraged by a staggering unemployment rate: 14.2% for young people ages 16-24.  The equivalent figure is 21.4% for African Americans.  He realizes that DC youth who need jobs need two things: a) the skills to find jobs, and b) the people who can help them secure those jobs.  District Grinding teaches students how to fill out job applications, dress for interviews, and communicate in interviews.  Already he has lined up representatives from Safeway and Target to meet with him and his peers.


MD | Winner, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County Public Schools

Chimey Sonam, Parallels Project

Montgomery Blair

Early in Chimey’s childhood, interaction with peers from outside her cultural bubble opened her eyes and broadened her perspective.  Yet she sees too many students in her county attending schools and living in neighborhoods that are racially and socio-economically homogenous.  The Parallels Project will bring together middle school students from different backgrounds, to create a space where they can embrace diversity and connect with peers outside their comfort zones.


MD | Runner-Up, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County Public Schools

Ishaan Parikh, KAST: Advanced

Montgomery Blair

For Ishaan, inspiration came the moment his sister — a student at a magnet math and science program — came home and declared “I hate science.”  KAST: Advanced builds on Kids Are Scientists Too, a non-profit founded four years ago by then LearnServe Fellow Jessica Yang.  KAST offers fun, free, and interactive scientific education to elementary school students, inspiring them to pursue careers in science.  KAST: Advanced expands this model to middle school students.  KAST: Advanced programs have already taken root at Takoma Park Middle School, and will be spreading across Montgomery County.


VA | Winner, Fairfax County Public Schools

Rohan Suri, kTrace

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology

Concerned about recent outbreaks of Ebola, measles, and flu, Rohan wondered whether technology might empower ordinary citizens to slow the spread of disease.  Most epidemics are mapped through contact tracing — asking each infected individual to remember who he or she has had recent contact with, and then isolating those individuals.  kTrace uses bluetooth technology to facilitate this process, alerting known acquaintances who might have been overlooked, as well as random strangers that were in close proximity, that they might have been exposed to the disease.


VA | Runner-up, Fairfax County Public Schools

Raman Khanna, S2S Nutrition

George Marshall

For Raman, it all boils down to nutrition and healthy choices.  He has grown increasingly concerned about the obesity epidemic raging in the United States: 1 in 3 kids are overweight or obese; they are more likely to be obese as adults; and they face a significantly greater risk of cardiovascular disease.  Fairfax County’s Program of Studies touches on the importance of exercise in its 7th and 8th grade standards, but barely touches nutrition — not even to explain the county’s own All Star Lunch Program or the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines.  S2S offers a unique student-to-student approach to nutrition education, helping elementary and middle school students make healthy choices.


IND | Winner, Independent Schools

Gaia Jinsi, GirlsGoLearn


Girls coming from all-girls schools are 3 times as likely to become engineers, score up to 50 points higher on the SAT, and are more likely to pursue graduate studies than girls in co-educational environments.  Girls in co-educational environments, therefore, may not be receiving the education that they need or deserve.  GirlsGoLearn plans to partner with DC public and charter schools to bring safe, all-girls learning environments to DC girls through weekend and after-school academic and enrichment opportunities.


IND | Runner-up, Independent Schools

Ryan Hunt, Easy BAC

French International School

Every day, nearly 30 people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver.  In 2013, 10,076 people died in drunk driving crashes, and 290,000 were injured.  For Ryan, these statistics are personal: several months ago, four high school students — including one on Ryan’s swim team — were hit by a drunk driver while their car was pulled over on the side of the highway.  Easy BAC is a smartphone app that assesses blood alcohol content, and lets users know whether they should be driving or not.  Users enter their gender, weight, type and number of drinks, and over what period of time, and the calculator estimates blood alcohol levels.  An alarm function allows users to set a time to be reminded to use the calculator.  The app also points users to alternative transportation options available, offering a simple and easy approach to avoiding drunk driving.

Inspired by what you’ve read?  Consider a gift to LearnServe.  Contributions will prepare us to kick off training for a brand new cohort of LearnServe Fellows in September!  Donate online at


Remembering Sam Murray

It is with great sadness that we share that Sam Murray, LearnServe Paraguay ’09, passed away last week in Massachusetts.  We celebrate Sam as a passionate, vivacious, hard-working student — ready to dive head-first into new experiences, poised to reflect deeply on what he had learned, and eager to make a difference in the lives of others.  Sam graduated from Bell Multicultural High School (DCPS), and continued on to Tufts to pursue his passion in international affairs.  Over the years he remained a dedicated friend and champion of LearnServe.

In his honor and memory, we are reprinting excerpts from his 2009 LearnServe Paraguay blog, and the college essay he wrote based on these experiences (which he proudly shared with LearnServe):

Sam Murray, second from left.

Sam Murray, second from left.

“Poverty, in Paraguay at least, is a mindset, a mental barrier – which has affected none of the people I have met. Those who have lacked material possessions are persons of character, strength, determination and people who have experienced pure joy, though their needs surely surpass anything I have seen in the States. In numerous ways I envy their happiness and collectiveness. The children with whom I have been partnered work in cold, wet, seemingly unlivable conditions, right alongside Americans, without complaints or whines. Some of their feet hang outside of their shoes and get dirtied by the mud. As I observe their work I want to swallow my desire to quit and follow in their footsteps. I have come to lead and teach, yet I gain many lessons in humanity.”

“During my two and a half week community service endeavor there were many instances in which I learned more about myself, my country, and life. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough came about while I was wrestling with a friend and ripped my pants. Naturally I was quite ashamed and made my best attempts to hide my obviously ripped pants. They were torn on the seam at the crotch all the way down to the kneecaps. My response to my concerned companions who offered to mend my pants was simple, “It’s ok, I have plenty more pants and I’ll just throw these away, it’s no big deal!” After continuous conversation and harassment I allowed one of the adults in the community to fix my torn pants. As I sat in his house and ate the lunch his family prepared he went straight to work at sewing what I thought were unfixable pants. After twenty minutes or so he came to the table presented me with my clothing and to my surprise it looked as if it were brand new. If I had money I would have offered it to him as compensation. When I offered to pay him the next day he denied it for several reasons which I attributed to pride. Typically, an American social normality for an act of generosity is a monetary award. It was not until a later conversation that I realized that this man’s intentions for helping me were not based on money; his act of kindness was of friendship and compassion.”

exploring asuncion-photo by sam t

“My experiences have helped me to come to the realization that life should be shared and adored and that one must make the day his own. Paraguay has exceeded my greatest expectations and has helped to change my mindset to one of continuous generosity, not out of a feeling of superiority but one of unity.”

Sam, you will be missed.  May your lessons in humility, humor and gratitude be an inspiration to all of us — and may we all find our own ways to share and adore life, to make each day our own.





Making Way for Generation Z

Reflections on Alexandra Levit’s New York Times feature on the coming of age of Generation Z

If you’ve spent time around our LearnServe Fellows, Abroad travelers, and alumni, none of these reflections on Generation Z should be a surprise:  They tend to be independent.  They don’t wait for their parents to teach them things or tell them how to make decisions.  They prefer in-person to online interaction.  They are accustomed to engaging with friends all over the world.

Yet, Alexandra Levit shares, organizations are so focused on capturing the talent, energy, and innovation of millennials that they’ve overlooked Generaztion Z rising just behind them.

Sejal Makheja — a LearnServe Fellow from the Holton Arms School quoted in the article — captured it best: these young people “want to take an active role in their communities and their futures.  It’s an upbeat group that’s full of passion.”

I’ve excerpted from the article below.  You can find the full story here.  Want to meet some of these Gen Zers yourself?  Check out our LearnServe Panels and Venture Fair on Thursday, April 23!


Excerpts from “Make Way for Generation Z” by Alexandra Levit, published March 28, 2015 in the New York Times.

It took 10 years before most organizations identified the millennials as a talent issue on fire. By now, the oldest millennials are 35. They aren’t children anymore — in fact, a majority of them are leaders with decision-making power and direct reports. While executives have been fretting over the millennials, though, a new generation is growing up behind the scenes — Generation Z (born starting in the mid-90s to the early ’00s depending on whom you ask). Within the next three years, Gen Zers will be the college grads in my audiences, and they are poised to be somewhat different from the millennials.

I’ve now had the opportunity to meet lots of Gen Zers, and here’s what I’ve noticed. To start, they tend to be independent. While a 2015 Census Bureau report found that nearly a third of millennials are still living with their parents, Gen Zers are growing up in a healthier economy and appear eager to be cut loose. They don’t wait for their parents to teach them things or tell them how to make decisions. As demonstrated by the teenagers attending the recent Generation Z Conference at American University in Washington, Gen Z is already out in the world, curious and driven, investigating how to obtain relevant professional experience before college. Despite their obvious technology proficiency, Gen Zers seem to prefer in-person to online interaction and are being schooled in emotional intelligence from a young age. Thanks to social media, they are accustomed to engaging with friends all over the world, so they are well prepared for a global business environment.

Among those who attended was Sejal Makheja, 16, a sophomore who lives in McLean, Va. When she was 14, Sejal founded the Elevator Project, an organization that aims to lift people out of poverty through apprenticeship, vocational training and job placement. She said she went to the Gen Z Conference because she wanted to cultivate the skills she’ll need to take the Elevator Project to a national scale.

“The young people at the [Gen Z] conference want to take an active role in their communities and their futures,” she said. “It’s an upbeat group that’s full of passion.”

Even well-known organizations will have to rethink their recruiting practices to attract this group, and now is the time to start. Those who want to take advantage of Gen Z talent in the future need to develop relationships today with teenagers in grades seven through 12. Get into their schools, provide mentorship and education, and put yourself in a position to help shape their career decisions. They are eager to listen.

Full story on the New York Times website:

Yasmine, Jessica, and LearnServe are Harris’ Heroes on WJLA

As our region counted down to the new year, local newscaster Leon Harris featured LearnServe International – along with two alums, Yasmine Arrington and Jessica Yang – as Harris’ Heroes.

Click the video above or here to watch the segment that aired December 31, 2014 on WJLA’s ABC Channel 7.

We’d like to thank Leon Harris and ABC7 for making LearnServe one of Harris’ Heroes. We look forward to even more new and exciting ways to empower teens to make a difference on issues that matter to them in 2015!

Paraguay 2014, Day 13 – Our strange and wonderful family

Marnie FamOn Sundays, Paraguayans turn their attention towards their families.  The empty streets this July morning were testament to that statement – instead if seeing people hurrying to and from work, the streets of Asunción stood completely empty, with the exception of the occasional passing bus.


But as visitors, we decided to take advantage of our last full day here by heading out on a morning walk to see the sights of a city we’ve come to love. We started out at a church dating back to the 1840’s and rounded out our walk by seeing the presidential palace, and El Cabildo, the national cultural center.


This was my second tour of Asunción as I participated in LearnServe Paraguay in 2011 as a rising high school junior. Three years later, I see myself, and this city with different eyes. 2011 was the bicentennial of Paraguayan independence, and the streets were filled to the brim with patriotic flags and banners. Today, remnants of the celebration can still be found, but the flags are fewer and recent flooding has displaced thousands of families.


On my first trip, I struggled to speak and understand my Paraguayan friends. This go-round I’ve greatly improved my Spanish but I struggle with daily pain as a result of a long-standing concussion. Yet my passion for this country, and it’s kind and generous people, remains unchanged. The dedicated community members of Santa Ana remind me of how Paraguayans have come together during this time of need to help each other find housing on dry ground.


Our LearnServe group has bonded greatly as well, and has become a second family to me over these two weeks of adventure. Eighteen high school students, three teachers, and I have worked together, played cards together, and even struggled together over the past seventeen days. Through this experience, we’ve formed an unusually large and diverse family. I’ve come to rely on everyone at some point on this trip, and many have relied on me to crank up a joke or game on our many rainy days.


As much as we learned from our host families and friends in Paraguay, we’ve also learned from each other. We’ve learned that the things that divide us, be it age, race, or neighborhood, pale in comparison to the values that unite us – love of learning, service, and a good game of “Honey Do You Love Me?” to name a few. I’m thankful that LearnServe not only broadens our view of the world, but also connects the many parts of the DC metro area. I hope that our strange and wonderful family of 22 stays in touch after coming home; that we don’t forget the kindness of the Paraguayan people or the beauty of quiet streets on a Sunday morning.



Marnie Klein, LearnServe Summer Intern supported by the Allianz Foundation for North America, LearnServe Paraguay 2011, Georgetown University



Innovating Currently

Introducing the 2014 LearnServe Innovation Award Winners

Opportunities and activities for high school students have proliferated over the past decade.  The tools for communicating these opportunities, however, have remained surprisingly constant: bulletin boards, video announcements, loud-speakers, and email lists.

Rockville High School student Xavier Rivera plans to change that.  Xavier is launching Currently, a mobile application and website designed as a virtual bulletin board for school community announcements.  School administrators, student club leaders, and coaches will be able to reach students with schedules, updates, events and announcements on their mobile devices – making communication more seamless, pertinent, and personal.

Xavier is a winner of the 2014 LearnServe Innovation Award (Montgomery and Prince George’s County).  He represents one of 53 student teams from across the DC Metro area who pitched their social venture ideas at the 5th Annual LearnServe Panels and Venture Fair on Thursday, April 24 at the School Without Walls.

Winners of the Innovation Award received a Surface donated by Microsoft, and pro bono professional consultations from M&T Bank, Capital One, ICF International, and Deloitte.



DC | Winner, DC Public and Charter Schools Category

Simone Banks-Mackey, F.I.G.H.T.

Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy: Parkside

More than 1,600 youth live homeless in a given year, far exceeding the 77 beds reserved for homeless youth.  Simone experienced this first-hand after her family was forced out of their home in NE DC.  F.I.G.H.T. – which stands for Finding, Inspiring, Guiding Homeless Teens – will build a positive and supportive environment for homeless teens through empowerment workshops, dynamic speakers, and academic advising.


DC | Runner-Up, DC Public and Charter Schools Category

Asa Canty and Matthew Smee, Hoop Dreams DC

Woodrow Wilson Senior High School

Avid basketball players, Asa and Matt wondered why some of their friends had to travel 45 minutes by bus within DC in order to find a decent basketball court.  They have surveyed students from all four quadrants in Washington DC to identify the courts most in need of an upgrade.  Through fundraisers and volunteer support they will refurbish these courts: replacing nets, re-painting lines, picking up trash, and ensuring the courts remain safe, inspiring places to play.


MD | Winner, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County Category

Xavier Rivera, Currently

Rockville High School

Zone out during morning announcements and you might miss the message about your basketball game that afternoon, auditions for the orchestra, or a room change for the next Young Changemaker’s meeting.  Currently, designed as an app and website, serves as a virtual bulletin board — allowing students and administrators to personalize and customize the community announcements that matter to them most.


MD | Runner-Up, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County Category

Fatima Talib, STEM People to People

Wheaton High School

Wheaton High School boasts multiple science and technology-oriented Academies – but until last month, hosted no science fair.  STEM People to People introduced Wheaton’s inaugural science fair, an opportunity to showcase their research and innovations to an audience of science professionals from the community.  The science fair will become an annual event, hosted by Wheaton students and faculty, offering students the opportunity to conduct and showcase original research while still in high school.


VA | Winner, Fairfax County Category

Jennifer Kang and Rebecca Soulen, The Atomic League

Annandale High School

Annandale High School students’ families hail from more than 90 countries, and speak more than 50 languages.  Yet there is very little interaction between ethnic groups.  The Atomic League will bring together the school’s myriad ethnic organizations in the context of quarterly service activities – working jointly with the leaders and sponsors to weave a tighter Annandale community.


VA | Runners Up, Fairfax County, VA

Katie Pruitt and Mira Sridharan, PLATES

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology

Even in one of the most affluent counties in the United States, students come to school hungry.  While federal food aid programs offer students free or reduced-priced meals during the school year, these programs may not sufficiently cover school breaks – most notably between the end of the school year and the start of summer programs, when children may go without a guaranteed meal.  PLATES will collect non-perishable items, as well as healthy produced donated by local farmers, which they will share with families during the weeks at the start and end of the summer not covered by food assistance programs.


IND | Winner, Independent Schools

Savita Potarazu, The Fine Hearts

Sidwell Friends School

Between 2006 and 2013, public schools in the United States reduced their investment in art supplies and equipment by 84%.  In the process, students enjoy fewer opportunities for creative expression during the school day.  The Fine Hearts links artistically talented high school students – with expertise in mediums as diverse as theater, choir, photography, ceramics, drawing, painting, and creative writing – with schools and community centers in need to expanded arts programming.


Ind | Runner-Up, Independent Schools

Kenneth Coleman, Swim to Live

Sidwell Friends School

In the United States, the second leading cause of accidental death in children is drowning – and 1 in 3 minority children don’t know how to swim.  Swimming can be a fun recreational fitness activity – not something to fear.  Swim to Live believes that water safety education is the best way to end the epidemic of drowning deaths.  Swim to Live brings free swim lessons to residents at apartment complexes in Montgomery County, at the invitation of property owners, so that these children can learn to love swimming, not fear it.


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