“It’s about looking around, seeing a need, and thinking creatively about how to address it.”
Name: Emerson Cilley
Hometown: Bedford, NH
Mantra: “If the only thing that is stopping you is your fear, that’s not an excuse not to do it.”
Passions: Volunteering, dance
2017 Thailand: The Elephant Sanctuary Project™ (formerly Elephant Village Initiative™)
2018 South Africa: Social Change Project™
Making an Impact: Founded Tutoring Outreach Organization (TOO), which partners with a local shelter to provide after-school tutoring and arts and crafts to the children in residence
Service at the Core
When it comes to volunteer work, Emerson Cilley has been around the block a time or two. After getting her first taste of community service at the tender age of eleven helping out at a meal center with her mother, she has since participated in countless initiatives in her home town of Bedford, New Hampshire, including fundraising polar plunges, pledge walks with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and various projects through the National Charity League and the National Honor Society. “It’s always been a part of my life, and working alongside my mom has been really special,” she says.
When Emerson decided she wanted to bring her passion for helping others beyond US borders, she did her research; not just any trip abroad would do. A focus on volunteering was important to her, but “I also wanted something that would put me out of my cultural comfort zone,” she says, “and GLA did that.” In 2017 Emerson joined the Thailand:The Elephant Sanctuary Project™ (formerly Elephant Village Initiative) program. She spent two weeks volunteering with elephants, working alongside locals, and absorbing all that Thailand had to offer.
Once she knew GLA was a fit, Emerson opted to come back for a second summer on a second continent and volunteer in South Africa (South Africa: Social Change Project), this time honing in on her passion for working with people and communities. On this program, students look closely at how the relationship between entrepreneurship and leadership affect current social issues, and witness up-close how movements for social change shaped South African society.
This experience impacted how Emerson thought about volunteership. “We talked about finding solutions to issues that would be impactful in a community, about solving a problem in a way that actually gets at the core of the issue, and not going with the easiest temporary solution. I saw it in action there, and it really inspired me to look at service differently.”
As part of the GLA Global Ambassadorship, select alumni are challenged to get involved in their local communities in some way; however, Emerson was one step ahead of the game. When it came to choosing a project, longevity was an important factor for her: “After my experience with GLA, I was inspired to do something that would really be impactful in the community long-term, not something that I just checked off my list in a day.”
After putting some feelers out in her community, Emerson got in touch with Families in Transition (FIT), an organization that provides temporary housing to families in need of lodging in nearby Manchester. “I knew through my previous volunteer experiences that there was a lot of need in the local shelter system and some areas weren’t getting as much attention as others.” The plan? To provide academic tutoring to high-school aged kids in the system. She had tutored before, and knew that that type of connection can have a great social as well as academic impact.
Emerson pitched the idea at a National Honor Society meeting, and recruited eight tutors who are now fully trained, onboarded, and ready to jump in. While originally she had hoped to focus on tutoring, the program objectives shifted slightly — the age group leaned a bit younger than anticipated, and the need for tutoring wasn’t as urgent at the elementary school level. So Emerson and her crew reconsidered their approach.
Every Tuesday, you will find her and other high school volunteers at the shelter. “It’s more of an after-school program for now, but we’re flexible” Emerson says. “We do arts and crafts, play with the kids, and are available as homework resources too–whatever is needed!”
Emerson’s advice for teens who want to help out but aren’t sure where to start? Just look around you! “It doesn’t need to be big, and don’t necessarily need to reach hundreds of people in order to be significant. It’s about looking around, seeing a need, and thinking creatively about how to address it.”