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Student Project Assists Orphans

Between the ages of 15 and 18, many orphans in Ukraine fall victim to drugs, prostitution and even suicide as they are forced to the leave the orphanage and transition into adulthood. But a group of University of Maryland undergraduates, including engineering, business and computer science majors in the QUEST program at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, is out to make a difference in those young lives.

The project grew out of an idea from Ukrainian-born Yana Jmourko, a Clark School senior civil engineering major who last summer traveled to Ukraine and visited orphanages. She forged personal connections with some of the children, as well as the directors of the orphanages.

At the start of the Fall 2008 semester, the students sought a way to help the orphans in Ukraine benefit from the opportunities of higher education. By the end of the semester they had built an organization, come up with a unique way to use photography to connect donors with orphans, built a web site, and started collecting money.

Their initiative, Shutters4Scholars, funnels donations to UCARE Inc., an established nonprofit organization that supports children living in orphanages throughout Ukraine with various initiatives, including higher education support.

The University of Maryland student team sent cameras to orphans, collected the photos those children snapped of their lives in the orphanage, and posted the images on a the Web site the team built, Web site visitors are invited to view the photos, read self-written profiles from the children, and donate online to UCARE Inc.

Jmourko's connections in Ukraine made the group's project feasible. She can also rely on her cousin, who lives in the Eastern European country, to help with logistics, like delivering the cameras and developing the photos.

Gerald Suarez, associate dean of external strategy at the Smith School, was the academic advisor to the project team as former executive director of the QUEST program. He was impressed by the team’s commitment to the social cause. "They are really engaging in the notion of applying the things they are learning here at the university and making a difference by translating that knowledge into action."

"This is the best project that I’ve ever been a part of," Jmourko said, a sentiment echoed by her five teammates. The team said the project was an exciting way to apply what they’ve learned in classes.

"It's really about working to make a positive change and really identifying with some of your own personal values and then using that to make a difference in the world," said Vlad Tchompalov, a senior computer science major on the team.

"As a finance major, everything that you do, you’re always thinking about the bottom line and trying to make a profit. It’s really nice to steer away from that and just do something for the greater good and not necessarily in order to make the most money," said Ellen Shvets, a senior Smith student on the project team. "I think that's something important to consider and it's forgotten a lot, but it's nice to see that when you start thinking about it and putting it on a public platform, that other people become interested. It's really contagious."

The group would love to attract corporate sponsors to supply the cameras to the orphans and create an easy way for them to upload their photos from the orphanage. They have goals to setting up photography workshops for the children, and a social network for the orphans connect with each other between different orphanages, even those outside Ukraine.

All but one student in the group are graduating in May 2009. Some already have jobs and other plans after graduation, but all are committed to staying involved with the project.

"It's the kind of thing where everyone wants to stay involved," Shvets said.

Watch a video about the project and view a slideshow.

Story by Carrie Handwerker

Source: Smith School of Business

February 2, 2009

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