When a group of strangers offers to raise money for your organization, the obvious answer is yes. When they are students from a fraternity — “millennials”, some would say dismissively — and they send you $4,500, you start asking questions.
Soon you discover that the co-ed “brothers” of Alpha Phi Omega (APO) are not your typical college kids. They are young leaders, members of a service fraternity without walls. Social entrepreneurs.
In a single semester, the University of Florida-Gainesville’s APO Tau Chapter raised enough funds to help Project Schoolhouse complete its school- and bridge-building projects in San Antonio, Nicaragua. Their hard work will transform hundreds of lives a thousand miles away, but closer to home something just as big is happening: they’re transforming themselves.
To learn more, we spoke with the APO Philanthropy Chairs that spearheaded the fall fundraiser for Project Schoolhouse (PSH), Alex Backman and Vic Abreu. Alex and Vic are sophomores at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Project Schoolhouse is a 501(c)3 based in Austin, Texas, that builds schools and clean water systems in rural Nicaragua. This begged the first question…
PSH: So how did you find Project Schoolhouse in the first place?
Vic Abreu (APO): A year ago Alex approached me out of the blue and said hey, once we’re able to, do you wanna run for Philanthropy [Chair]? So we did. When it came time to present, we wanted to take [our project] to an international level. Our chapter usually does something in Gainesville or around the state. We saw an opportunity to do service for the world. My family is from Nicaragua, so we poked around the internet and kind of fell in love with everything you do. I’ve seen the need for the problems you’re addressing.
Alex Backman (APO): I think we found Project Schoolhouse on something like a Yelp for nonprofits. The other organizations [working in Nicaragua] looked a little sketchy, or it just wasn’t clear where the funds were going. Project Schoolhouse stood out as trustworthy, transparent, and reliable.
Alex: It’s hard to work with a nonprofit outside the community. But the Skype call with Tab [Barker, PSH Executive Director] and the pictures he shared helped connect our chapter. It was a smooth process the whole time and really exceeded all of our expectations. Selina [Serna, PSH Board Member] checked in with us every month. Everyone felt real connected, they knew who they were working with. Improving infrastructure, clean water. Everyone felt united in donating.
Vic: The Skype presentation with Tab got everyone involved and made them feel like they really had a hand. They felt so strongly connected, even to a place they’ve never been to.
PSH: How did you raise the funds and build awareness of Project Schoolhouse? What were some of your strategies or activities?
Vic: We used resources from back home and went through business ventures. We made flyers [about the fundraiser] and posted them around popular Gainesville places people go to. [One supporter] talked to several banks in his community and set up a collection.
Alex: Brothers volunteered to bake brownies and cookies, which we sold at chapter gatherings. We went to local coffee places, got a discount, and sold coffee at the beginning of our weekly meetings. We worked out a deal with Blaze Pizza [local chain] — if you brought in a flyer about the fundraiser, they would set aside 10% of your food purchase. Someone else sold kava tea. We used Facebook as a tool and it worked pretty well. We set up a Crowdrise fundraising page and asked the brothers to share it on with friends.
PSH: I heard there was also a t-shirt contest. Can you tell us about that?
PSH: Very cool. Let’s talk about APO in general. Is there a physical space? Is it co-ed? How do you get in?
Alex: There’s no house, but we have an info booth on campus. We help everyone 9-5 with directions and information. It’s a service to the campus and the Gainesville community. We call ourselves “brothers”, both females and males. There are around 100 active members at the moment, and I think the ratio [in our chapter] is about 60-40 female-to-male. The national [APO] network is huge.
Vic: There’s a selection process, “Rush.” I can’t go into the details, but you attend an info session, do a couple services, fellowships…We say, come for the service, stay for the friends. One of the criteria is how dedicated they are to community service.
That’s one thing we all have in common — we all really love doing service.
We have a Service Chair that makes a weekly service sign-up. After each Chapter meeting, it gets flooded with people signing up. Things like hanging out with the elderly at HarborChase [Senior Living facility], helping underprivileged kids with homework at the Boys and Girls Club, Keep Alachua County Beautiful—cleaning up roads and removing invasive species. Noah’s Endeavor, playing with kids with disabilities. We also go to Forest Green [Apartments – Section 8 Housing in Gainesville] and play with the kids there. They don’t get to go outside very often, so every week we go there and watch the kids, just have fun. This was started by our chapter, we are the direct providers.
PSH: What do you like the most about APO?
Alex: I like that it’s a service fraternity. UFL has 40-50,000 undergrads. You have lots of social and professional fraternities, but A-Phi-O is based on giving back to other people. It’s centered around people that have that mentality.
Vic: A-Phi-O gives me the security of being able to be who I am in an environment that doesn’t feel judgmental. There’s very little room for hate or judgment. One of the learning experiences I’ve had is how to be an effective leader, learning how to delegate, helping everyone feel like they’re not taking orders. That they’re actively involved. I’ve learned to love service with all my heart. I want to dedicate my life to helping others. [APO] has changed my disposition and my career course in general.
PSH: What did you take away from working with Project Schoolhouse? Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Vic: Personally — and stop me if this gets too personal — one of my best friends has graduated now. He’s a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay. He got me excited about the change that you can do with the [Philanthropy Chair] position. He inspired me. But I still questioned why I wanted to do it.
Then I realized I can use this as a springboard for another dilemma I’m having.
I grew up in a Hispanic family in Miami. My Mom’s side is Nicaraguan. Although I never felt too connected — maybe personal resistance in a way —, I realized that this position was my way of not only helping people, but being able to express my pride in my culture, in my own way. I went from not really feeling Nicaraguan or Nicaraguan-American to feeling intense pride—being able to show this country to 100-plus brothers. And say, we’re helping people, look at this beautiful country.
Having worked with Project Schoolhouse, I’ve come to realize that I want to incorporate philanthropic work into what I do in the future.
Project Schoolhouse wishes to thank Victor Abreu, Alex Backman, and all the generous brothers at University of Florida’s Alpha Phi Omega – Tau Chapter. If you’re a UFL student or live in the Gainesville area, please stop by the APO info booth and say hello. And may we all be inspired to give back to our communities, locally and across the world.