Valdosta Daily Times

September 8, 2013

SIFE celebrates 20 years

Stuart Taylor
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — It was 20 years ago that Don Park and Wayne Plumly decided to start a new student organization on Valdosta State University's campus. Students in Free Enterprise, or SIFE, is an international organization founded in 1975 that encourages university students to give back to their communities.

SIFE, or as it has recently been re-named, Enactus, boasts a membership of more than 62,000 across 39 countries. Currently, VSU's chapter has 150-200 members, but when they started out, they just had nine. In those early years, the main goal for the chapter was to just survive.

“We had to establish ourselves on campus and in the community,” said Plumly, who currently serves as Dean of VSU's Harley Langdale Jr. College of Business Administration. “VSU already had plenty of student organizations...we needed time to build infrastructure on campus and trust in the community.”

Part of building that trust was SIFE's work in the community, with its members performing, on average, 15,000 hours of service per year.

One of the biggest projects they've undertaken is the SIFE Skills Success Center, located at the Ora Lee West Community Center.

After years of tutoring there, SIFE wanted to create something more permanent, something with a more lasting impact. Working with Housing and Urban Development, they purchased the land they needed. Through fundraising efforts, they raised $190,000 to build the center.

“We wanted to set up a complete learning environment...to spark their creativity.”

Along with a computer center and science and math room, the center also has an art room, for art projects, and a music room where students can take piano lessons or practice other instruments. Numerous studies have linked exposure to music and art programs to improved grades and the students who attend the center are no different.

Since opening in early 2011, the more than 100 students who used the center have seen their grades rise significantly.

“If we just make it 'come here and do your homework,' they're not going to come,” said Hilary Gibbs, a former SIFE member who now serves as an advisor. “You have to make it interesting and make it fun.”

Part of this success is due to SIFE's large number of volunteers.

The center is staffed by volunteers and their number allows them to focus on one or two students, giving them the kind of one-on-one attention and tutoring that can be hard to come by in schools.

While the Ora Lee West Skills Success Center is one of SIFE's largest projects, it’s not their only one.

SIFE members work with Lowndes Associated Ministries to People, or LAMP, to offer financial literacy and computer literacy classes, helping the homeless people that LAMP serves to gain financial skills and job skills. For instance, take the recent success of CleanSweep, a professional cleaning service created by LAMP and SIFE. It has grown so well that now it’s being spun off into its own business.

“It's part...of the social contract,” said Plumly. “We—not the government—have a responsibility to help those in need.”

SIFE also started its own business, an eatery appropriately named Business Bites. Located at VSU's North Campus, Business Bites is completely student-owned and run, with profits going toward funding other SIFE projects, some of which cross international borders. They helped a Guatemalan hotel chain located in a rain forest set up a website and donated computers and lessons to them so they could make their business more efficient by setting up digital bookkeeping.

Just this past summer, several members traveled to just outside Nairobi, Kenya, where they had previously assisted in establishing a secretarial services business and a poultry business, training 16 local women and keeping up with them through Skype.

Marcus Shine, current SIFE president, was one of those who went to Nairobi this past summer. Like many members, he's involved with a variety of projects.

“If we have to travel to change the world, that's what we'll do,” said Shine. “Our motto is 'Change lives, Change the world, Change yourself'.

“If we focus on changing lives, that little impact can be a ripple to change the world...We want to be able to help them...and give them the skills and abilities to sustain themselves.”

And as much impact as SIFE has, both globally and locally, one of the biggest impacts they have is on themselves.

“As you're helping, you become more mature. You realize that you have an actual purpose in life.”