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Young leaders create organizations for the future

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STLF office
Nick Sausen sits in the Students Today Leaders Forever office. STLF founders say energy is the main ingredient in their organization.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

It's nine at night in the U of M student union. In college terms, this is the perfect hour to hold a sign-up party for the '2007 Pay It Forward Tour.'

'Pay It Forward' is a spring break volunteering trip. It's organized by STLF, Students Today Leaders Forever. It's a non-profit, not a student organization started by a group of three university students. One of them is Brian Peterson. 

Upstairs in the STLF office Peterson points to a U.S. map dotted with pins from San Antonio to Washington DC. Each pin represents a place students on a 'Pay It Forward' tour have volunteered. Last year they had 365 students go on trips. 

STLF co-founder Irene Fernando, with the dark hair, jokes around with volunteer Hilary Zimmerman as she makes posters for an STLF event. One reads, "Hug someone today." Fernando is also the host of her own public access show, "Irene on TV."
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

"This year probably about a thousand. Just because we have huge increase in the high school trips," Peterson says.

He says STLF started over late night ramen and coke in the freshman dorms. He and two of his friends were lamenting the stereotypes they faced as business school students. They wanted to prove they weren't money-grubbing, corporate monkeys as they put it. So they organized a busload of volunteers to hit the road and help.

"So one day it will be helping at a food bank, one it will be do an inner city clean-up project, or going to a school and reading to kids," he explains.

After the first bus came four more, then high school mini-trips. Peterson says the organization has grown so much it made sense to incorporate. They want to do it right, and they want to learn along way. So they've petitioned the university to establish a non-profit management degree. 

All this in a little room crammed with students coloring signs that read, "Hug someone today," and "Pick up litter." Peterson and others say they're promoting a positive message and a positive energy. 

Brian Peterson
STLF Co-founder Brian Peterson talks with a few students interested in the project.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Stacy Palmer, the editor at the Chronicle of Philanthropy, says that's just part of the millenial generation. She says most 18 - 25 year olds grew up doing service learning in school. Social justice and community service are natural extensions. 

"By the fact that they're forming their own groups they're saying existing groups aren't meeting their own needs. It's great that they are that involved that they want to start a group, but it's also a rebellion in a way," she says.

Palmer says if the rebellion continues and these non-profits live on, they could change the way non-profits with big cash flows do business. 

"What most of these groups that younger people are founding is they're giving a lot more to lots of different people instead of top down approaches," she says. "And they're really obviously trying to use technology to be very efficient. So that you don't necessarily have to have a lot of money to be very effective." 

In Massachusetts, the Boston Foundation started a program linking established non-profit leaders with young, often college-aged, entrepreneurs. 

In Minnesota, Students Today Leaders Forever has certainly expanded its network with few resources. It's managed to establish 10 college chapters in the Midwest with just $300,000 in revenue. Next year will be the first time STLF will pay a staff member. 

Honor Schauland
Honor Schauland helped set up a non-profit to help her hometown of Finland on the Iron Range. The first project focused on refurbishing the Finland Area Recreation Hall.
Image courtesy Honor Schauland

A few years ago a Carleton College student helped found HealthFinders, a free and reduced-cost health clinic in Rice County.

Honor Schauland is another 20-something who has helped found a non-profit. It's called Friends of the Finland Community. A native of the Finland-area, Minnesota Schauland returned to the North Shore in part because of the town's culture. 

"In some ways people are kind of anti-social, but then at other times their sense of community is very strong. There's these people that you've known your whole life you're kinda stuck with them. But in another sense it's really a great thing," she says.   

That sense of community was dying, Schauland says, and so was the town's 100 year old community center. She and another community leader asked residents if they wanted a new one. 

"And that kind of morphed into the whole project of the community center and what, we started asking, what they would like to see in their community," she says. 

People wanted a place to hold weddings, tutor kids and run small businesses. Schauland says the center will be built next summer. In the meantime, Schauland will be busy refining her grant writing skills and finding board members to continue the work, perhaps even some 20-somethings.