With the seed grant Caitlin Roque won from Small Change, Better World, she was able to assemble and distribute 300 kits filled with food and hygiene items. Photo: Caitlin Roque

Small Changes Can Create a Better World

Throughout her time at UCI, Caitlin Roque ’21 did what she could to help the community. She and fellow students launched a mobile dental clinic to visit underserved communities, and made care packages to distribute at homeless shelters. Roque wanted to do even more, but she and her classmates were limited by their own out-of-pocket funds. Then last fall, she came across the Small Change, Better World seed grant program.

“I’d never seen anything like this before. It offered students grants to pursue community service projects they otherwise would not have the opportunity to do because of lack of funds,” says Roque, who majored in biological sciences with minors in psychology and business management.

The Small Change, Better World model was developed by Richard Matthew, professor and director of the UCI Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation, along with two fellow academics and humanitarians.

“Working for the United Nations in Sierra Leone and Rwanda, I realized there are many small but very real challenges — a broken piece of equipment, a diagnostic test — that families or neighborhoods are not able to solve and that development programs miss but that could be addressed quite easily,” Matthew says. “To help fill this gap, I decided to create a program that would fund small but meaningful community projects that students could design and implement.”

Vivianna Goh, a Ph.D. student in social ecology, won a Small Change, Better World grant to support a community garden and STEM education project in 2019. Photo: Vivianna Goh

Through Small Change, Better World grants, the Blum Center provides UCI students up to $3,000 for one-time projects that meet a tangible need within communities locally and across the world. Since 2018, 44 seed grants have been awarded for student-led projects, totaling more than $89,000. Proposals that received funding this year range from providing clean water and food to families in indigenous communities in the Philippines to offering books and reading materials to people housed in Orange County jails.

“We hope that the experience gained through these projects will inspire students to continue to take action to address local and global challenges, and to understand that even small actions can make a significant impact,” Matthew says.

Small Change, Better World is part of the Blum Center and the School of Social Ecology’s Compassion Initiative, which includes courses on the science and practice of compassion and the Global Service Scholars program.

With the seed grant Roque won from Small Change, Better World, she was able to buy materials, assemble and distribute 300 kits filled with food and hygiene items, which she called Smile Pals. First, she worked with elementary and middle schools in her hometown of Chino Hills, California, to invite students to decorate reusable cloth bags with artwork and positive messages for the recipients.

“We hope that the experience gained through these [Small Change, Better World] projects will inspire students to continue to take action to address local and global challenges...”

- Richard Matthew, Professor and Director, UCI Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation

Roque stocked the colorful bags with non-perishable foods like beans and noodles, as well as personal hygiene products including toothbrushes, deodorant and dry shampoo. In February and March, she distributed the Smile Pals to six shelters across Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino Counties.

“With the pandemic, there were not a lot of opportunities to meet face-to-face and do volunteer work, even though there was so much need in the community at the same time,” says Roque. “So with Smile Pals, I wanted to give younger students the chance to get involved with community service.”

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