RALEIGH, N.C. — At the elementary school in the secluded village of Daping in Guangxi province in southern China, floors were caving in and the roof had holes in it, in part the result of earthquakes that struck nearby Sichuan in 2008.
Today, the village has a new school, paid for with funds raised by students at Duke University, N.C. State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Spearheading the fundraising effort was REACH, a nonprofit formed two years ago by Andrew Poon, at the time a student at N.C. State.
Poon, who graduated in December with an undergraduate degree in industrial engineering, says that when he graduated from Enloe High School in Raleigh, he promised himself he would “change the world.”
But he woke up one morning in the spring of 2008 and “realized I hadn’t done anything.”
So he founded REACH, or Relaying Empowerment – Anything Can Happen.
The nonprofit enlists students from the three Triangle universities to serve as campus representatives who organize cultural events and other activities to raise money to finance new schools in China.
REACH, in turn, teams with the Seattle-based China Tomorrow Education Foundation, a nonprofit that works to improve education in rural China and works with volunteers there who submit building proposals for new schools.
Poon, who has landed a job in Charlotte with Eaton Corp. and will continue to serve as CEO of REACH, formed the organization when he was president of the Asian Students Association at N.C. State.
Initially enlisting students from sister clubs at Duke and UNC, the nonprofit operates with a staff of seven volunteers, mostly students or recent grads, plus two representatives from each campus who organize events.
The nonprofit raised $12,000 in the 2008-09 academic year and, based on negotiations with the China Tomorrow Education Foundation, selected Daping as the location for the new school it would finance.
“We supplied the students with a safe learning environment,” says Poon, whose parents grew up in Hong Kong.
In the 2009-10 academic year, the group raised $13,000, and now is negotiating with the Seattle group about how to spend the funds.
Options include providing the school in Daping with more supplies, financing a new school in another rural village, or pooling the funds it raised with those from other donors and building a larger school in another community.
This year, REACH aims to raise $20,000.
Students at each campus organize annual culture shows, each raising about $4,000, and also organize smaller events.
The group at Duke, for example, raised over $1,500 last year at a dating auction.
REACH has begun to partner with local restaurants that donate a share of their revenue on a given day.
And it plans soon to launch a pen-pal program to build relations between college students in the Triangle and elementary-school students in China, and to help local college students learn Chinese.
“We want to get the students familiar with the mission of REACH,” Poon says, “and have them own their own projects.”