UWM Nonprof-IT program gives student a chance to repay charity

A UWM information technology program gave junior Breyley Stephenson an unexpected outlet to give back to a charity that meant so much to the student and his family.

Four days after he was born in 1998, Stephenson needed surgery at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin to repair two congenital heart defects. His parents, Saraj and Chris Stephenson, stayed across the street at the Ronald McDonald House for a week while their newborn son  was in the hospital.

Surgery was a success. Describing himself now as “super healthy,” Stephenson says Mom and Dad will often recall the kindness and generosity they received from the Ronald McDonald House when the family recalls that stressful time away from home in Evansville, about 80 miles west of the hospital.

“I guess it was kind of implanted in my head that I owed something to them in some way,” Stephenson said about the Ronald McDonald House.

Opportunity to give back

A payback opportunity arose this year in the unlikeliest of ways.

It was early in the Spring 2019 semester when Stephenson arrived at a small room in a Northwest Quadrant building to find out what charities he had been assigned to help as part of the Nonprof-IT program at the School of Information Studies. Nonprof-IT, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary on Oct. 11, gives UWM students real-world experience while providing nonprofits with IT solutions and support at no cost.

By coincidence, Ronald McDonald House was one of his assignments. Stephenson was stunned.

“I was kind of blown away. I thought the world worked in funny ways because of what they’ve done for my family,” Stephenson said. “This was kind of a way to give back to them, and I appreciate that so much.”

Stephenson, an information science and technology major, worked with three other students on the project. They spent most of their time doing research to put together a “best practices” guide to boost social media presence, particularly when it came to reaching out to a specific audience or fundraising on Facebook.

Stephenson’s group also volunteered once at the Ronald McDonald House, helping pack to-go lunches for families. It was his first time inside the building.

“When I walked in, I was putting myself in my family’s shoes, what they walked into,” he said. “It felt quite weird, a little bit, just being there not in the context that was negative, but being there on a good note. It was just an amazing experience.”

71 nonprofits served

Stephenson is one of 238 students who have participated in Nonprof-IT since the program began in 2014, with 71 nonprofits receiving assistance in that time. Projects typically include website creation or redesign, social media assistance or technology assessment.

Program director Adam Hudson said students gain practical skills while also helping fulfill part of UWM’s mission of building a stronger community. Students also work with mentors from the program’s corporate partners as part of the program.

About 40 students are split evenly into groups to work with about eight nonprofits each semester. While Nonprof-IT is hosted in the School of Information Studies, the program is open to students from across campus.

Hudson hopes to expand the program, and Nonprof-IT is getting bigger classroom space as part of renovations at the Northwest Quadrant.

“We’re definitely turning away nonprofits. Many more apply for service than we can fulfill currently,” Hudson said. He hopes that Nonprof-IT can secure corporate sponsorship for the new space where nonprofits can come for tech assistance.

Grateful for health and help

Ann Petrie, president and CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Eastern Wisconsin, said her organization was grateful for Stephenson’s health and how the student wanted to give back.

“Working with Breyley on this IT project makes us proud to know that Breyley and other past guests want to help our organization operate more effectively and allow us to better serve our mission,” Petrie said.

Stephenson hopes to work in cybersecurity or “any kind of tech job at Northwestern Mutual,” he said with a laugh. But he will always remember his experience helping the Ronald McDonald House.

“I wanted to owe something to them, I wanted to give back to them in some way,” he said. “So being able to volunteer for them, being able to help with their social media presence — even if it’s just in the slightest way — is just awesome.”

Note: The Nonprof-IT program is holding a five-year reunion event on Friday, Oct. 11, from 2:30-4 p.m. at the UWM Lubar Entrepreneurship Center.

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