In March, Paradise Canyon Elementary School fifth-grader Ray Wipfli introduced fellow students to his personal mission to raise $20,000 to build a school and start a soccer camp for children in rural Uganda.
Speaking in a TEDx community talk at La Cañada High School, he shared his recent experience of visiting the district of Mpigi, where kids sat outside for lack of an adequate schoolhouse, and his belief in the power of global sports to unite people from different backgrounds.
"No matter where you live in the world, when you play global sports you can have a good time, because everyone plays by the rules," he said at the talk. "If more people played together through global sports, the world would be a better place."
Today, having just passed the $13,000 mark, an older, wiser Wipfli will return to Uganda in February, where he will present the money raised so far and help break ground on a new school building.
It's an exciting milestone for the 11-year-old Ray, who's worked with mom Heather Wipfli, associate director of USC's Institute for Global Health, to bring long-lasting and meaningful change to an underserved population.
"It's so fulfilling to see people who don't have as much as we do — and they know that — but you see them smile. That's what drives me to keep going and keep raising this money," says Ray.
So far, the fundraising efforts for Ray United, the nonprofit organization the Wipflis began, have been arduous, the fruit of hours of work and planning, appearances and marketing brainstorms. In the process of organizing parties and managing online donations through the crowd-funding website gofundme.com, Ray's run headlong into a fundraiser's reality: no matter how good the cause, raising money takes time.
"It's been really great to watch him learn how hard it is to fund-raise, and also have the confidence to go into meetings and talk to people," Heather Wipfli says.
Undaunted, Ray has crafted a personal goal to keep him motivated through and beyond Ray United's first mission in Uganda — they hope to use the same model in a different city or nation every year, for the next five years.
"Honestly, I think I've learned a lot in the past year about a lot of this stuff," Ray says. "As long as I can keep continuing to learn and get better at this, I think I can do anything."
The soccer camps envisioned by the Wipflis would not only offer recreational activities, but also provide nutritious meals and medical services to children and families in need. USC global health students will work there to complete their training, Heather Wipfli says.
In addition to creating the website on GoFundMe, Ray decorated donation jars and set them up throughout the city with signs explaining the cause. He's appealed to would-be donors at numerous school and community events.
Now, Ray United has come up with a new way people can contribute — for just $5 donors can have a brick in Mpigi's new school painted with their name or that of a loved one. Construction is set to be complete by August, Heather Wipfli says.
Hilary Gregg, the GATE coordinator for La Cañada Unified elementary schools, said she was so inspired by Ray United's mission that she purchased bricks in the names of her students.
"There are a lot of causes in the world I want to support. What drove me to Ray is that a child saw something that upset him and he wanted to make a difference," says Gregg. "I wish adults would realize the optimism kids have."
As for Ray, he hopes his efforts will eventually reach the ears of a donor who has no personal connection to him, but is motivated to give simply for the sake of the cause and the people in Uganda.
Today Uganda, tomorrow the world.
"I'm not really sure where it's going to go beyond this. (But) I'd like to do something that has an impact," he says. "If I could save the world, I would save the world."