Students build an orphanage, provide water to the homeless and assist immigrants
Consistent sources of good news this year have been rare, but one class offered by the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences has gone against the grain by producing a steady stream of uplifting stories.
Students in “Doing Good: How to Start and Run a Successful Nonprofit Organization,” taught by Kamy Akhavan, executive director of the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future, are putting their classwork into practice by helping the homeless, immigrants and orphaned children.
Catherine Cummings, a law, history and culture major, and her organization Water Drop LA have provided thousands of gallons of clean water to homeless Angelenos. An orphanage in the Philippines recently broke ground thanks in part to the efforts of Joanna Maniti, a business administration major at the USC Marshall School of Business.
Natalia Wurst, a senior majoring in public policy and psychology, is forming the USC Immigrant and Migrant Resource Center, which will act as a resource hub for immigrants in Los Angeles County.
Wurst, Cummings and Maniti all point to Akhavan’s class as essential to moving their projects forward. “Professor Akhavan connected me with a whole new network of people in the nonprofit sector who helped me grow Water Drop to an even bigger organization than I could have ever dreamed,” says Cummings.
Nonprofit? No problem
Akhavan is well-suited to guide students through the complex world of nonprofit formation. He’s worked previously as the CEO of ProCon.org, a nonprofit news source, and has served on numerous nonprofit boards. “Doing Good” was offered through the Dornsife Toolkit, which provides students with skills that can help them beyond college.
“I have a great appreciation for doing practical work, something that is directly applicable to a person’s life,” says Akhavan. “How can you make an immediate impact with your knowledge and with your initiative?”
He teaches students how to build a board of directors, market your organization and procure funds. Guest speakers from nonprofits around the nation. share real-life experiences and tips. At the end of the semester, Akhavan had his students pitch their nonprofit idea to a slate of previous speakers.
“I’ve been to a lot of pitch presentations in my career and there’s always some that are kind of duds. These students were all top-notch, and any one of them would have received funding in a real-world situation,” says Akhavan.
Called to the frontlines
It’s no accident that these particular students ended up in Akhavan’s class. All three enrolled seeking guidance for their humanitarian interests.
For Maniti, the desire to make a difference started at age 17, after a mission trip to the Philippines where she witnessed the lack of educational opportunities for children. She knew she wanted to provide them with access to housing and educational resources and that desire remained even after she left the mission field.
“For a while this dream was something that I didn’t want to touch, and I didn’t know how feasible it was or where to even get started,” says Maniti.
Inspired by the experiences of her father, a Peruvian immigrant, Wurst had been volunteering at organizations like the USC Gould School of Law Immigration Clinic. She discovered that many immigrants were not aware of resources available to them and felt that a centralized information hub would be beneficial.
Cummings started Water Drop LA after an afternoon spent handing out burritos to the homeless in downtown Los Angeles. She and her fellow volunteers were frequently asked for water. Cummings learned that there were just a handful of public water fountains available and, with many cafes and restaurants closed due to COVID-19, water had become even more scarce.
She formed Water Drop LA in the summer of 2020 along with fellow student Aria Cataño, who graduated from USC Price School of Public Policy with a bachelors in public policy and is currently pursuing a masters in urban planning, and USC alumna Kate Montanez. They’ve been distributing jugs of water to the unhoused from a church parking lot near the USC campus, dispensing over 1,000 gallons each Sunday.
Something tells me I’m into something good
Akhavan’s class offered Cummings the practical skills she needed to make sure her nonprofit had staying power.
“I learned from both Professor Akhavan and from the awesome guest speakers he brought in about topics ranging from IRS filings to social media strategy,” she says.
Cummings has raised $400,000 in funds and hopes to soon install permanent water sources for the homeless in L.A.
Wurst feels similarly about her coursework.
“Since taking the class, I now have the connections and knowledge I need to take the USC Immigrant and Migrant Resource Center from a proposal to a reality,” she says.
Akhavan introduced Maniti to contacts who laid out the logistics of building schools overseas. With his encouragement, she reached out to the pastors who oversaw her previous missionary work and learned they were looking for a partner to help start an orphanage and school on the island of Mindanao, in the city of Ozamiz, Philippines.
Maniti is helping design the blueprints, educational curriculum and helping train teachers and staff. Her nonprofit Cherish Hearts International, which will prioritize building orphanages abroad, has been officially established as a 501(c)(3).
Akhavan couldn’t be more thrilled.
“During one of my office hours, [Maniti] showed up and screenshared a picture with children squatting in the dirt. She says, ‘These are the kids who are going to be in my orphanage,’” he recounts. “And the next slide, you see the steel girders going up for the roof of the building.
“Her efforts are going to give those children a real shot at life by providing them with education and shelter and all these resources that they would not otherwise had available. I’m so proud of her.”
Akhavan looks forward to mentoring another group of USC students who aspire to change the world in the next iteration of his class this coming spring.