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Amber Smith: Making volunteerism cool again with ME3



In groups of three and four, the seniors taking a new Community Leadership and Service class at East Wake High School in Wendell are conferring with their visiting mentor, Amber Smith, about the volunteer projects they're working on. One group wants to organize a drive to gather supplies for the local boys and girls club. Another group, three young women, wants to mentor fifth-grade girls on making the jump next year from elementary to middle school. A third group, male athletes alarmed at the statistics on child obesity, is planning a field day at the middle school on nutrition and teamwork. "Some will be better at sports," one of the young men says of the younger kids. "But teamwork is about everyone in the group taking a leadership role."

Smith, an N.C. State University graduate student, affirms this insight with a radiant smile. Everyone can lead; everyone can help meet the community's needs.

This class, and another like it at Broughton High School in Raleigh, is using a curriculum that Smith developed, the latest initiative of an organization she created called ME3—an acronym for Motivate, Educate, Empower and Engage. The "ME" means everyone.

Five years old, ME3 is hitting its stride in its two-fold mission to promote volunteer action in Wake County and serve as a gateway for prospective volunteers and the nonprofit groups that want their help. ME3's core group has grown from a handful of people to about 40, according to Smith. They partner with 70 nonprofit groups, helping to recruit volunteers either for single events or ongoing participation in the organization—each group and each volunteer makes that call with ME3's help— before and after the initial match.

Apropos of its mission, ME3 is volunteer-led. Smith, its president, has never taken a salary, though she's happy to report that last year it added its first paid (albeit part-time) staffer to coordinate the volunteer placements.

ME3's work is much needed in light of research that shows self-reported volunteerism to be low in North Carolina compared to other states and low in Wake County compared with other metro areas in the state. Just 23 percent of Wake County's population who are 16 and older did any kind of volunteer work last year, Smith says.

ME3 is fresh off its most successful promotional effort to date, the second annual "Couture for a Cause" held Nov. 5 at Marbles Kids Museum. Smith admits that she hesitated when a volunteer suggested making a fashion show their signature event. But soon she bought in: The idea was to pair volunteer designers from Raleigh's growing fashion industry with ME3's nonprofit partners, challenging each designer to "show" the nonprofit's purpose and style. This year, for example, designers for the Green Chair Project, which recycles used furniture for needy families, presented their models with lampshades for hats.

"It was very ME3-like," Smith says, "because the designers are so passionate about their work, and we're all about connecting people through their passion to a cause."

"Amber Smith is literally a matchmaker of volunteering," says Katie Little, proprietor of Kat Little Style in Raleigh. "Her passion is contagious."

Couture for a Cause sold out (350 tickets) and raised some $10,000 for ME3. Little raved about the event on the New Raleigh blog and was thrilled to hear that Smith would be cited by the Indy. "She most certainly deserves it," Little said. "ME3 is helping to spark a movement among young people that volunteering is 'in style.'"

A chance conversation with a customer at a restaurant where she worked in high school planted the seed for Smith, now 27, that eventually grew into ME3. At a very young age, she'd decided that she wanted to make the world a better place. But she didn't know much about local needs, let alone how to address them. "I was a bundle of energy," she recalls. "I just didn't know what to do with it."

The customer suggested that she try volunteering and connected her with Jeff Marsocci, a Raleigh attorney who's active in the Kiwanis Club's service programs. Through Marsocci, she and some friends were soon pitching in at various nonprofits, including Hope for the Homeless and Amnesty International. As Smith remembers it, she loved every group she worked for, not just one. Most of all, she fell in love with volunteerism, and she wondered why no one had suggested it to her before.

The idea that she might start a volunteer group percolated in Smith's mind for a couple of years as she started college at N.C. State. Finally, she took a year off from school and, with some friends, set out on a cross-country trip. For three months, until they ran out of money, they volunteered at every stop from Raleigh to Seattle, learning how nonprofits work while also interviewing folks about their experiences—or lack of same—with volunteer work.

To Marsocci, it was amazing. When Smith asked, he gave her some information about Kiwanis clubs in other places. The next thing he knew, she was traveling. "The biggest thing about Amber is, she is bold," Marsocci says. "A lot of people talk about doing good. If she sees something that's right, she just goes ahead and tries to do it."

Bold and tireless, adds Sarah Johnson, who's been ME3's volunteer vice president and legal counsel for three years. Like anyone who starts a nonprofit, Smith's heard her share of no's from people she's approached, Johnson says. "She just keeps going ahead. She is dedicated to the cause or promoting volunteerism. And the last couple of years—with Couture, the [high school] curriculum and a part-time coordinator—have really borne the fruits of that work."

Now in graduate school, Smith is studying nonprofit management toward a master's degree in public administration. She also works part-time at the N.C. State Institute for Nonprofits, where her job is—no surprise—placing students in appropriate internships.

Some day she'd like to build ME3 to the status of official volunteer center for Raleigh and Wake County. That could help boost Wake's volunteerism rate, which usually is higher in better-educated and more affluent places. Volunteerism is also higher in places with centers, Smith says.

ME3's next goal is to get the new community service course accepted at 10 Wake high schools, which, if it happens, will require a second part-time coordinator, Smith thinks.

It's not that she won't be involved, but she's busy helping with two classes—and she anticipates that impending cuts to Wake's school budget will require her to do some private fundraising to push that number from two to 10.

When the time comes, perhaps she can clone herself, because as the class at East Wake goes on, it's clear she's got a great ear for hearing each student's passion and helping each one make a plan to use it—just as someone once helped her.

"She is the perfect complement to the class," says James Jolley, who teaches the East Wake class. "Community service is a passion of mine and I jumped at the chance to do it. But I don't have the contacts that she has, or just the skills that she has. She's really great at helping the kids to understand, OK, there are problems in the community, and needs in the community, and you can do something about them."

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