The Story of Think Alive
When I called Tim Enfield the other day, he said he was “shocked” to be profiled in this Youth Rising blog.
That shock in some ways has been shaped by his disability: 20-year-old Tim, a Junior at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has cerebral palsy. “I do this not expecting anything. Disability kind of makes me humble.”
The “this” he refers to is serving as a philanthropist to other youth with disabilities around the country. In his freshman year of college, he founded Think Alive, a non-profit foundation that provides grants for academic, physical, and social achievement.
From college freshman to philanthropist: Enfield's "Think Alive" offers grants for young people with disabilities.
A look at Tim’s blog shows just how successful a leader he has been in recent months: in October alone, he was given an advocacy award, spoke before 200 students at Elm College, and raised $4,000 in a single evening for his foundation.If that weren’t enough, he also won a Morgan Grant National equestrian championship in Oklahoma.
Not too shabby.
Small Steps, From the Start
In ninth grade, Tim moved from New Hampshire to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was at Santa Fe Prep that he really got started.
So how did a high school help turn a student into a philanthropist?
Tim explained that he was a part of the Teen Action Program, by which students complete 60 hours of community service each year, initially by volunteering in existing programs with identified needs, and later by creating their own service projects
“During junior year, my friend and I helped establish a program that synched math and basketball together in a mentorship-tutoring model. The following year I had my first real connection with a disabled youth – I worked at a clinic, hospital, and a non-profit, all dedicated to disabilities,” he says.
Before this, he felt somewhat disconnected from the disabled community. “I wasn’t labeled as disabled often because physically, I had overcome so much.”
While volunteering, he saw another youth tie his shoes with one hand. This took him back to his own experience learning to do the same. He remembers this as a pivotal moment.
“I realized I wanted to do this more as a long-term commitment. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. I thought maybe it would be something I’d do when I was 40 when I was somewhat rich and famous, on a philanthropic level,” he says.
Dreaming Up - and Funding - "Think Alive"
Turns out he didn't have to wait until he turned 40. A second pivotal moment came just a few months later: “I went to the movie theatre and there was a change box. You give change because that’s what you’re supposed to do. It was for cerebral palsy.”
Because he himself had already overcome so many hurdles with the disease, he says, “it really hit home. I thought I would start a foundation.”
Tim decided to apply for an entrepreneurship seed grant during his freshman year, which he spent at Wake Forest University. “My goal was to apply for one of those grants and create something of substance, of value, something larger than me.”
He combined $5,000 from Wake Forest and another $1,000 for startup costs with a $3,000 stipend so he could devote time to the foundation without having to “worry about bills or getting a ‘regular job.’”
Being the new kid on the block made it difficult to get his original idea—an e-commerce site for people with disabilities—off the ground, so he transformed his business plan into a charitable engine, sparked by his own frustrations applying for grants in the past.
“Every grant was always so limited. You needed to have a certain disability, live in a certain area, and be doing a certain thing. There were so many restrictions that you never qualified," he says.
It was also hard to fund the activities that young people really wanted to do. "If you wanted to go to the Paralympics or start a business or do a simple thing like learn how to ride a bike or swim, there wasn’t a grant for that."
Think Alive set out to change these dynamics. Since coming onto the scene, Tim’s charity has awarded twenty “achievement grants” to young people ranging from $150 to $500, funding everything from lessons in archery, dance and music to photography equipment. The kids have had cystic fibrosis, autism, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and Williams Syndrome among other conditions.
A Student First
It's not easy to balance school and developing and growing a fledgling organization. Such is the life of a student activist.
So what has allowed his organization to grow despite these time constraints – and what message does he have for budding student social change agents?
“I feel like you need to think of it as this: You see an issue that you need to do…anything you feel passionate about. It doesn’t necessarily need to be an issue. You try to make the change now. Just try to do what you can. Eventually what you can do will increase. You don’t have to have huge expectations at first – keep it honest with yourself,” he says.
“One person who asked me a question at the college I spoke at said he couldn’t see himself doing [what I do] because it felt so daunting, but I like to think of it as small steps, and from step to step, you’ll reach the plateau you’re trying to reach.”
This has been Tim’s mantra for quite some time, beginning with the literal tying of his shoes: “Each summer growing up, I had a goal associated with an aspiration that I wanted to achieve – tying my shoes, swimming, biking."
One of the hardest things about running an organization is learning to delegate to others. “[Think Alive] has always been so personal to me.” But there is an upside to professionalizing his passion. “It means the world to me to have people to bounce ideas off of, and I haven’t had that for a long time.”
He has support from a small U MASS-based action committee, which is “in charge of enacting change on a local basis and in charge of New England Development.” There is also a five-member board of directors.
Looking to the Future
Tim is thinking big. He wants Think Alive to diversify its funding by building partnerships with organizations that serve youth with disabilities and testing a membership model, which would offer scholarships and grants to members.
Think Alive is also looking into starting a seed grant program for college-age disabled entrepreneurs, similar to the funds Tim received while at Wake Forest. There are also plans to build in an alumni network to “encapsulate and develop the individuals further, beyond our grants.”
Though Tim is studying sports management, he has toyed with the idea of creating his own major in non-profit management and one day giving his full-time focus to Think Alive. And, yes—a surprise to perhaps no one that knows him well—he plans be at the 2012 Paralympics in the Netherlands.
Most of all, he plans to keep challenging the perception that disabled people can’t do the same things as other young people. "There are limits of disabilities, but there are ways to get the same things done differently. I’ve been able to do everything I put my mind to – it just might look a little different. I think that’s something we all need to understand. We all achieve and make steps in different ways," he says.
What you can do: Think Alive is looking for community partners and grant recipients. Their application process is rolling and interested youth can apply online or download an application from www.thinkalive.org/apply.
Eddy Ameen writes and curates the Youth Rising blog for SparkAction.
Are you a young person leading social change? Do you know of one? We want to hear from you for possible inclusion in a future Youth Rising Blog. Email Caitlin[@]sparkaction.org and share your reactions in the comment section below.