As a high school student, Amber Smith wanted to make a difference somewhere. She just didn’t know where that “somewhere” was.
That uncertainty continued to nag at Smith during her first two years as a student at NC State. It wasn’t until she decided to take a break from school and join a friend, Heather Leah, on a cross-country road trip that she started to find some answers. For two a half months, Smith and Leah volunteered in every state they visited.
“[We] really got the sense that people wanted to make a difference, they just weren’t sure where to get started,” says Smith. “At the same time, there were all these causes that were constantly in need of more manpower and more help.”
With that in mind, Smith and Leah founded ME3, which stands for Motivate, Educate, Empower and Engage, in 2005. Renamed Activate Good in 2011, the Raleigh-based nonprofit aims to help volunteers find causes that need them. Both volunteers and nonprofits can create an account on the website for free.
“You can participate in short-term project or even on one day, you can use your special skills to help complete a project for a cause, you can make an ongoing commitment. It really doesn’t matter what your skills, schedule or interests are, there’s something out there for you,” says Smith.
After taking a few years off from school, Smith re-enrolled and created her own major, called “social change leadership,” through the College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ interdisciplinary studies program. She wanted to explore the question of how social change is made and the traits of those who help make it happen.
After completing her undergraduate degree in 2009, Smith went back to NC State and received a masters in public administration and nonprofit management in 2012. Through her education, Smith says she developed a better understanding of nonprofits and was able to apply that to her work.
While Activate Good’s volunteer network is more than 4,500 strong, Smith says it isn’t just about helping people volunteer. Through it, she says she wants create a culture of volunteerism in the Triangle and beyond.
“We want volunteering to be as commonplace as shopping or going out to eat,” says Smith, who is the executive director of Activate Good.
That’s why, in 2009, Activate Good began work on Activate Schools, a curriculum for high school students that seeks to instill the importance of volunteering as a way to solve community issues. The program began during the 2010-11 school year at a few Raleigh-area high schools and is something Smith says she wish she had at that age.
“I think that disconnect in understanding what volunteerism was and how I couldn’t find my passion when I was in high school was something that prompted me to help others to find their passion,” she says.
Activate Good also organizes a volunteering effort in Raleigh each Sept. 11 for the 9/11 Day of Service. In 2013, 1,500 volunteers took part in more than 40 service projects around the city. Smith says she’d like to see even more volunteers next year.
In the years ahead, Smith says she’s looking in to way to make Activate Good financially sustainable while continuing to grow it. While working toward that goal isn’t always easy, seeing the difference her work is making keeps her going.
“The moments where you kind of see that real community change is occurring, I’d say those are the most rewarding,” she says.