Alumna makes a career out of helping others


This article was originally published on the MIT Alumni Association web site.

Lori Tsuruda says people can make a difference in the world just by committing one or two days a year to community service. The same people could transform the world, she believes, if they learned to do good deeds every day of the year.

Ms. Tsuruda, who earned the SB degree in biology from MIT in 1989, has made community service the center of her life. The founder and driving force behind the Boston nonprofit People Making a Difference, she said she spent years studying for a career in science, only to discover her true passion was making the world a better place. Now, almost 10 years later, her organization runs 50 community service projects a year, recruiting people for one-day jobs ranging from painting floors at public housing projects to collating Braille books for children.

Ms. Tsuruda first got involved in community service at MIT where she was a member of the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega. Later she volunteered with the youth development organization, City Year, but when the organization declined to fund her proposal for a project leader development course, People Making a Difference (PMD) was born.

She was pursuing a PhD in biology at Tufts at the time. "I saw a different career path opening up, but I didn't know how I was going to support myself," she recalled. "And so like a good MIT person, I did some research to find out how I could make my idea work. Two months later I started the process to incorporate."

Supporting herself is still a challenge: Ms. Tsuruda works part-time as a paid grant-writer for another nonprofit, as well as serving as executive director for PMD full-time with partial compensation.

EARLY ASPIRATIONS

Ms. Tsuruda's childhood dream was to become a space biologist, studying the effects of weightlessness on living systems. She was a freshman at MIT, working on a UROP project in bioelectrical engineering, when the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger changed everything. "The Challenger accident occurred while I was in the lab, and I remember the voice on the radio announcing it," she said. "I was devastated; the whole direction of my life changed."

In the aftermath of the Challenger accident, many space research projects were canceled or put on hold as NASA reexamined its shuttle program. The slowdown made Ms. Tsuruda realize she would have to consider other career options. "Everything was on hold after that, so no one could really enter a career in that field anymore," she said. "I did go on to other cutting-edge science, but I never felt quite as excited about it. I didn't know until much later that everything else I studied was just a substitute."

Later, in graduate school, Ms. Tsuruda said she began to grow bored with science altogether. "I had gotten further and further away from the original topic that interested me. And after 10 years of doing research, I realized I didn't really love science so much anymore."

In founding PMD, Ms. Tsuruda said her objective was to engage volunteers in hands-on work in the community. The organization mobilizes short-term volunteers for other charities like EarthWorks and the Women's Lunch Place. She has harnessed the power of the Internet to bring people together&emdash;all of PMD's volunteers learn about and sign up for projects on the organization's web site at or respond directly to e-mail postings. In 2000, 375 volunteers (262 of which were first-timers) gave nearly 3,400 hours for projects in 24 communities.

The most rewarding part of running PMD, according to Ms. Tsuruda, is watching her volunteers experience something new. "My proudest moments are seeing how people respond to the projects," she said. "A PMD volunteer at the Committee to End Elder Homelessness recently told me how much he enjoyed talking with one of the residents&emdash;so much so that he wondered whether the breakfast was really happening to benefit the residents or to benefit volunteers like himself."

Ms. Tsuruda has also learned about what charities do and don't need. "When we go to the Greater Boston Food Bank, I'm struck by how much food is donated that isn't nutritious at all," she said. "Now, when PMD volunteers organize food drives in their communities, they try to be very specific about the protein products or other nutritious foods needed.

"At MIT, one of the things they teach you is before you jump in to solving a problem, first define it," she said. "Yet when it comes to volunteer work, people often jump to the solution. They say, 'let's have a clothing drive', but they don't talk to the local shelter first to see what's really needed. I want to be respectful about charities' needs instead of just doing what's easiest for us."

EVERYDAY AWARENESS

Ms. Tsuruda said her long-term goal is to transform the idea of community service from something that people do one or two days a year to a basic roadmap for everyday living. "I feel like we're addressing problems too far downstream," she said about issues like homelessness and hunger. "It's great to volunteer, but I want people to think about how they might effect greater change on an everyday basis.

"It's wonderful for people to be recognized for doing good, but I hope it extends to their everyday lives, like getting to know your elderly neighbors and helping them bring out their trash cans for pickup. Though you're not going to the inner city to volunteer, these are the little things, the connections, that our communities are missing."

In that same spirit, Ms. Tsuruda hopes PMD's style of responsible volunteerism will spread. Last year she started a course to train more people to plan and lead community service projects, either within PMD or for their own groups. "We're leveraging, sharing our expertise and trying to introduce people directly to the charities we work with," she explained. "It's also an opportunity to increase community connections and get more people to have a broader awareness of the needs in their communities."

After a day of community service, Ms. Tsuruda said she's sometimes chagrined to hear volunteers say, "This is a great experience--everyone should do it." "I try to help people understand that it would be even better if we never had to feed people at a shelter at all," she said. "If we wore our social awareness hats 365 days a year, maybe we could make that happen."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 25, 2001.


Topics: Alumni/ae

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