Today’s post is a special interview about the Emily C. Specchio Foundation , whose mission is to encourage, identify and financially support university undergraduate and graduate students who want to change the world for the better, both nationally and internationally. In her 21 years, Emily Specchio managed to inter-relate the ideas of academic excellence with social responsibility. Emily was part of the Phi Sigma Pi national honor fraternity and embodied the virtues of Scholarship, Leadership, and Service. She participated in fundraising for cancer research, Teach for America, tutoring children, and the Foundation for Peace. Emily was a marketing major and graduated magna cum laude from Virginia Tech University on May 13th, 2006, but sadly passed away suddenly and unexpectedly two days later of a ruptured cerebral aneurysm . The foundation celebrates Emily’s life by following her inspirational lead in continuing to support charitable organizations close to her heart.
Question for Kate: The foundation website includes a quote from Emily: “Sunsets remind me that there is always beauty in the world, even when you feel like everything is falling apart.” It sounds like Emily had a great outlook and tried to live it every day, which is truly inspirational. Who established the foundation?
The foundation was established and is completely run by Emily’s immediate and extended family. Emily, my sister, was an extremely vibrant, determined, and giving young person. Growing up she always found ways to give back to her community. This started at a young age with volunteer trips with my mother to help out our county nursing home, and blossomed throughout her teenage years as she participated in four separate humanitarian trips to Appalachia and the Dominican Republic, and frequently mentored young children at the elementary school close to her university, among other activities. She was a lover of life, a “chaser” of sunsets, and truly believed in the power of the individual to make a difference.
Our family was completely shocked by Emily’s sudden passing – it occurred only two days after her graduation from Virginia Tech, and less than a month after my wedding engagement. One headache, one day changed our family forever. Emily had her whole, promising life ahead of her. There were no signs or warnings. However, my family is extremely tight-knit and determined, and while waiting in the hospital on the day of Emily’s passing, plans were being made to accomplish something special in her honor. The initial idea was to form a scholarship in her name at her beloved alma mater, Virginia Tech. We set this up and were quickly astonished by the outpour of support. It became apparent to us that this movement was bigger than we realized and we promptly started a foundation that would allow us to grow and accomplish further initiatives to honor Emily and follow her inspirational lead in giving back to others.
So far, the foundation has provided scholarships to 9 young women in marketing studies and has reached full endowment. Do you keep up with the girls who received the scholarships? What kind of work are they pursuing now?
The Emily C. Specchio Memorial scholarship at Virginia Tech has been so successful! Due to the wonderful generosity of the supporters of our foundation, we have raised enough money to fund the full tuition for a study abroad semester for two Virginia Tech students each year. As this scholarship is now fully endowed, it will be given every year in perpetuity.
I do still keep in touch with all of the past recipients of the scholarship. They are wonderful young women who have a commonality in their strong drive to succeed and compassionate interest in the world. Six of the recipients have now graduated from Virginia Tech, and all list their study abroad experience as one of the things that most changed their life. Many of them have caught the “travel bug” and take every opportunity to learn about new cultures and places. This is so enjoyable to see as the study abroad program also affected Emily in the same way.
One of the preferences for the scholarship is that the recipient has or will study abroad in Switzerland. Why?
We tried to model the preferences for the scholarship around Emily’s college life. She was extremely strong academically, graduating magna cum laude in 2006 in Marketing. As mentioned, she also was very active in community service, leading Relay for Life teams, mentoring children, and helping beautify the Virginia Tech campus. But, hands-down her favorite experience in college was her study abroad semester in Lugano, Switzerland, which is run through the Marketing department. This is a very unique study abroad program as it places a high priority on traveling and learning about other cultures for the curriculum. During her spring semester abroad in 2005, Emily traveled extensively throughout Europe and really developed into a strong, independent, and compassionate woman as a result.
Emily loved Lugano so much that she had made plans to return after her graduation to start a masters program in social marketing with an option to enter a Ph.D. program after the 1st year. After seeing Emily fall in love with Europe and her transformation as a result, we decided that we would use the memorial scholarship as an opportunity to expose additional students to other cultures, opening the door for students who may not traditionally be able to afford such a luxury as study abroad. We also rank the scholarship applications by academic excellence and strong history of community service. This scholarship is gaining in popularity every year, with the number of applications tripling since its inception in 2006. From this scholarship, we hope to allow other young men and women to learn about the world and hopefully inspire them to make a difference.
I understand that your yearly fundraiser, A Night with an Angel, last year raised upwards of $45,000 and has allowed the foundation to expand into some new initiatives, one of them being the Ambassador program, which will award grants to young people with big ideas for community outreach either domestically or internationally. Can you share with us some of the ideas or your thoughts about the applications you’ve received so far?
I am so happy to report that our annual “A Night with an Angel” benefit has continued to grow each year, even despite the current hard economic times. It is held every May, near the anniversary of Emily’s passing. It helps our family focus on something positive during that time of the year, and has been very healing.
Once we reached the point of a fully endowed scholarship (our initial goal) we recognized the potential of the foundation for accomplishing much more in Emily’s memory. Starting this year we’ve launched several new initiatives supporting and encouraging youth to make a difference both locally and internationally. These new initiatives include the ambassador program, a partnership with the New Jersey Community Development Corporation (NJCDC) to fund students involved in improving inner-city life in Newark via legislature, supporting young women entrepreneurs with Kiva.org, and the start of a mentorship program at Gilbert Linkous elementary school in Blacksburg, VA where Emily often volunteered.
The Ambassador program is one of our larger efforts, and we’ve already received support and interest for the position. Some of the applications thus far include ideas for microlending efforts in Africa, humanitarian efforts to set up medical clinics in the Dominican Republic, and local mentorship programs. We are very excited to see all the applications and encourage anyone with great ideas to apply!
Background: The Ambassador program requires a clear statement of project goals and mission, along with estimated timeline and funds required, and The Foundation provides mentoring to support the ambassador to help set up a blog or website and raise funds for their cause. The ambassador must present their project ideas and progress at a minimum of five venues (schools, organizations, churches, etc.) and The Foundation will provide funding for the project as well as a 2:1 match for money raised by the Ambassador for one year.
It sounds like the Ambassador program is set up not only to assist the young people in their projects, but to provide them with the experiences and responsibility to continue such projects on their own in the future. How did you come up with this idea, and what kind of time, effort and people does it take to keep up this program – and the foundation in general?
The Ambassador program was thought up by a cousin of ours, Marco Ambrosio. Marco graduated college a year after Emily, and was inspired to become a social entrepreneur and writer. He raised his own funds after graduation to complete a global HIV project exploring the disparate realities of living with HIV around the world. He gives frequent talks about his research and is currently writing a book entitled “Hope in Action”. His blog and website are linked through our foundation homepage.
Marco spearheaded the idea of an ambassador program for our foundation. He realized the potential for one individual to make a difference, but also the lack of funding and mentorship available for driven youth. We hope that our ambassador program, which provides funding and mentoring support, will promote youth-driven community service. We are prepared as a foundation to put in as much time and effort as required to fully support and help our ambassador complete his or her goals.
All of the work done for our foundation is completed by family members on a voluntary basis. My parents and extended family help organize our annual fundraiser as well as mailings to our supporters. I have setup and manage our website, twitter, and e-newsletters. Marco has volunteered to act as a mentor for our ambassador(s), and we hope to establish a network of past ambassadors through the years that can provide valuable advice and information. We will also help design a website/blog for our ambassador and help them set up speaking engagements to further their cause and inspire others. Many of my family’s spare hours outside of work are spent on foundation development, but it is very rewarding and enjoyable. We are so excited about this new initiative, and hope to see this program grow with each passing year.
The foundation also has a team through Kiva , and with only $400 has provided 8 microloans to women entrepreneurs in their 20’s living in developing countries. Each of those loans has already been paid back 30% or more, freeing up that money to be used elsewhere. It seems like even individuals can get involved at this level; can anyone participate in microlending through Kiva and support Emily’s vision?
Microlending is truly a way for any individual to make a difference – it is no surprise that this idea recently gained recognition by the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize. Kiva.org is the first person-to-person microlending site that connects microlenders to entrepreneurs in poverty-stricken countries. Our interest free loans have been to women involved in many different career fields from storeowners to farmers, and live everywhere from South America to Asia. Kiva has an extremely high rate of repaid loans, which allows us to continue to fund additional entrepreneurs. You can actually see the money loaned taking action in an individual’s life, which is so rewarding. We have established a foundation team page on Kiva (http://www.kiva.org/community/viewTeamLoans/?team_id=5173) where supporters can view our loans, and even join the team and select their own entrepreneurs to support!
Is there anything else that you would like people to know about Emily or the Foundation?
First, I would like to extend a thank you to Krista for choosing our foundation to showcase for the month of August – we deeply appreciate her support. Second, I would like to stress that we are still a young foundation and would love to hear any comments/feedback/suggestions that any of you may have! Please do not hesitate to contact me at kate @ emilycspecchiofoundation.org. This foundation serves as an extension of Emily’s life. Although she may no longer be with us in mind and body, we truly feel that her spirit lives on through all the people that our foundation helps. Thanks to all for reading!
For the month of August, $2 from every copy of The Neurology of Angels sold through the book website will be donated to the Emily C. Specchio Foundation.