While tutoring in the inner city of Buffalo, Ting Gao discovered students can't learn without the proper tools. Rather than hold a simple collection, the Mount St. Mary Academy senior started a non-profit organization to fill the needs in the lives of the less fortunate. Third Non-Profit seeks to supply the students who want to learn with the tools they need to succeed. Her list runs the gamut from pencils to laptops.
"I was inspired to start this charity, because I used to tutor at local libraries in the inner city of Buffalo," she said. "A lot of the students I was dealing with, they didn't have supplies. They didn't have books, binders, pens, pencils. They really had nothing. I was really frustrated, not only as a tutor, but also as a member of my community, because I had these students who were really motivated, who really wanted to learn, but they couldn't do anything about it because they didn't have the resources. They didn't have the access to the supplies that most students have. They didn't have access to a computer. I guess I took that frustration and tried to do something productive with that."
Her main objective was a mid-year school supply drive. Charities usually collect and give out school supplies in the fall, but Gao found a lot of students will either misplace, damage or use up a lot of their supplies by winter.
Gao started Third Non-Profit with a friend and zero funds. Instead of donations of cash, they collect used ink and toner cartridges for recycling. Funding Factory, a fundraising-through-recycling company, provides fundraising dollars to Third Non-Profit. Mount St. Mary serves as a corporate partner, allowing the students to use the school's non-profit status. The University at Buffalo is another partner, offering drop-off sites for the spent cartridges.
The name Third Non-Profit comes from the fact that it serves people in Buffalo who still live in Third World conditions.
"I want to show people that there are people who live in this Buffalo community in conditions that are comparable to Third World standards," she said.
Through their recycling program the group, which has over 40 volunteers, has raised $500 and bought three laptops and four Amazon Fire Tablets, as well as 800 other school supplies, which includes colored pencils, protractors and glue sticks. Most of the goods got to the local Somali-Bantu Project, run by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur.
"Our students come from Somalia and Kenya. When they come here they have practically nothing. So, we give them all the supplies they need and we tutor them," explained Sister Kathleen Dougherty, SSMN, education coordinator for the program. Students aged 3 to 17 from five public schools stop by the St. Mary center, located on the West Side, after school for a couple hours of help on their classwork. Most of the students are in an age-appropriate grade, but the classes are still too advanced for them, so the sisters and volunteers help them with their homework. Many take English as a Second Language classes.
"We have not had to buy any school supplies since they gave us this great number of things. We have no profit at all. Everything we buy is with our own money," Sister Kathleen said. "This has been a great help."
As a side venture, the non-profit group organized the "Penny Project." Members type inspirational quotes on small pieces of paper and stick them onto the backs of pennies, then leave them in public places to be found by people needing a pick me up.
"We have the acronym HOPE - Hang On, Pain Ends. We also have some weird funny ones like, 'Life is too short to remove USB safely' or 'Good Vibes Only.' We put them in public places, heads up and hopefully people come by and pick them up and say, 'There's something written on the back.' Then they'll be motivated or inspired," Gao said.
The vice president of the organization, Sarah Ngo, went to Paris two weeks after the November 2015 terrorist bombings with 100 pennies and left them by fountains and other public areas for citizens to find.
Gao describes herself as restless. Although involved in several clubs and after-school activities, she feels the need to do more for her community.
"I've been involved in a lot of community service activities, but I never felt like I was truly getting my hands dirty. I would go out and help at soup kitchens, and I really like that feeling, but there was also this restless part of me that felt I wasn't doing enough," she explained.
She is an impressive student as well. She will be the valedictorian for the Mount during graduation this month, and has been accepted to Yale University, where she plans to study biomedical engineering. She considers herself an average kid, but seems to accomplish more than the average 17-year-old. She even does her parents' taxes.
She draws inspiration from her parents, Chinese immigrants who ran their own restaurant, never taking a day off, and her grandfather, who refused to take his Social Security benefits, feeling others needed the money more.
"He lived life to the fullest. He wasn't materialistic. He felt people were the most important in life. It was people first, then worry about making money and being successful," Gao said. "People always tell me that I'm smart. I don't feel it. I feel I should feel something. I have a lot of friends who are really intelligent. I've never considered myself to be smart. I just work hard. That's kind of like my motto - Work hard and be kind and it will take you far."