Molding community change makers

NEW YEAR, NEW FACES: They’ve come from as far away as Sydney, Australia, and as close to home as Chapel Hill, N.C. This year’s incoming first-year class of 3,960 enrollees at UNC features award-winning researchers, artists, directors, dancers, writers, community activists, athletes – and even a certified gerbil breeder. All are bright. All are hopeful. And this week, we meet five of them.

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Rich Burris doesn’t believe in just making change – but in molding change makers.

“I hope I’ll be able to do it at UNC, too,’’ says the 18-year-old first-year student.

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Before leaving Charlotte to enroll at Carolina, the Myers Park High graduate spent the last two years as a staff member at Youth Empowered Solutions (YES), a nonprofit organization that teaches teens and adults how to make changes to their communities.

As part of the “Real Food Active Living” team at YES, Burris focused on helping people living in food deserts – populous urban environments where healthy and affordable food can be difficult to attain – gain access to a more healthy lifestyle. The goal: dent the childhood obesity problem.

“But instead of telling people who don’t have access to healthy food and a safe place to exercise to just go on a diet or buy healthy food, we would try to show them the skills that would help them get that access, like teaching them public speaking skills so they could go (in) front of a government board to talk about starting a community garden.”

The people Burris has worked with have started a community garden and transformed an abandoned building into a community recreation center.

“It’s more like sustainable change,’’ he says. “The YES organization empowers you.”

The former student body president has been so empowered that he’s pondering a political science major, which could help him continue to coach change makers while he remains one, too.

“It’s really touching when you see that you’ve made an impact,’’ says Burris, who may also study geography. “Honestly, back when I was younger, I didn’t think helping others would make this kind of impact on me. But it’s such a great feeling.”

Read more about UNC’s Class of 2017.

Story by Robbi Pickeral of University Relations.

Coming tomorrow: A Charitable Innovator

From Monday: A Physicist With Rhythm 

From Tuesday: An Independent Athlete 

From Wednesday: A Hopeful Healer

Published August 21, 2013.