Pyxis Foundation: How a Handful of Recent Grads are Changing the World

Pedro Group Walk

Photo of the four of us (minus Truong) in Nicaragua this past July, 2012.

We’re young. We’re idealists. We’re going to change the world. Just you wait and see.

As young adults, how many times has this thought crossed our minds? How many politicians have told us this as they speak to expansive crowds of eager youths? How many times have we longed for the life of a great helper to the less fortunate as we sip our second cup of coffee and peer outside our window across the Hudson River into the realm of nature far away from our offices in midtown Manhattan? And we exhale, and collectively think, “Tomorrow, I’ll do it. Tomorrow, I’ll make something happen. Tomorrow, I’ll give back to the world.”

So what keeps us from ditching our office jobs and joining the ideals of Sargent Shriver and Mother Theresa, of dedicating our lives to the greater good, helping the poor, our own concerns and menial problems thrust to the side as we teach the eager young children of Guatemala, or bring clean water to the people of Africa? What if we could act now? What if instead of saying we will, we DID?! What if instead of living a life of general sympathy and occasional donations, we lived lives of self-motivation, action, compassion and dedication? If we all decided that now is the time for us to do what we dream of doing, what motivates us, and what we were born to do… we would all be a lot like the founders of Pyxis Foundation.

Meet Tiffany Onorato, a young woman who is truly taking the mission of “Get Busy” to a whole new, and quite literal level. Tiffany, along with fellow Quinnipiac University alums Truong Nguyen, Matt Andrew, Christian Nielsen and Hillary Federico decided to do what many recent college graduates dream of doing: saving the world. I recently met with Tiffany to talk about Pyxis Foundation, her motivation to start Pyxis and what it takes to start a non-profit as a twenty five year old woman in a profit driven world.

Pyxis is an organization which aims at funding projects in developing nations which are sustainable in nature. When we fund a project we want the community to take ownership and control over the outcome of their plan. If we fund an opening of a healthcare facility, we want people of that country to staff that facility. We want that facility to prosper. Unlike many, Pyxis aims to motivate community members by providing opportunity for development. This development can range from individual development and growth to community development and growth. For the funding, we try to find donors here. People want to help, But sometimes don’t know exactly how to help. Pyxis connects donors with where their money goes.

Pyxis FoundationBut why start all of this? How does something like this even begin? Where does this life changing decision come from? As a senior in college, just three years ago, Tiffany had the opportunity to take an alternative spring break to Nicaragua in 2009. While Tiffany went a different year than Truong, Matt, Hillary and Christian, the experiences were just as significant. While in Central America, Tiffany built classrooms with fellow college students and interacted with the communities. Tiffany didn’t speak a word of Spanish at the time, but she explains her feelings, experiences and connections with the people there.

Their classrooms were made of corrugated tin; three walls and a roof made of metal, it was literally an oven in there. I remember walking into a classroom and felt the sweat form immediately. T floors made of dirt; when the wind blows, kids get dirt in their eyes; if it rains the classroom floods, it’s muddy. There is no running water, no sanitary bathroom. They do not have a sound learning environment. There are kids that don’t go to school because they can’t afford the uniforms or a pair of shoes. Homes are made out of trash bags, entire homes made out of cardboard boxes. I met a woman, that, when it rains, her house literally falls down.

Jose Luis Profile

Photo of Luis, one of Pyxis’ newly selected scholarship recipients. This photo was taken at his home in Nicaragua.

The students, so eager to learn as they were, dealt with constant distractions that seemed so unnecessary and otherworldly to us Americans. But, as all things do, the trip ended after ten days, and Tiffany returned home. But the feeling lingered that this could not be it. The same notion hit all of them as they returned back to the United States, albeit a year apart. “The feeling that struck all of us? – How amazing the people were. You shared a look, a laugh, a cry and it was this transcendent feeling between people. Between you and another human being and without speaking a word, you could feel their feelings inside your heart and deep down inside your soul.” They all knew that these incredible, sensitive, motivated Nicaraguans could do great things to improve their community if they only had some help, or an opportunity or just a push in the right direction. And it was up to them in some way to follow through on that.

As a senior in college, and just 21 years old, Tiffany was determined not to let the lessons learned on her trip fade into the past. She took on a fundraising project with nothing more than a computer and a dream. Determined to fund enough money to send two Nicaraguan students to a bilingual leadership academy called Alianza Americana, located in Leon, Nicaragua, she utilized social media and blogs to spread her experience, her word and most importantly, her mission. Before she knew it, the donations started pouring in. With no specific marketing plan, web strategy or a single dollar in outside capital, Tiffany started what would develop into something huge. 

“I got this amazing opportunity to travel and volunteer in Nicaragua and people just wanted to help me continue to help others. I figured let me see what I can get… and I’ll just figure out the rest.”

Donations came from every which way; friends, family, classmates from years ago. The beauty of social media shined through as people Tiffany hadn’t seen or spoken to in months and years donated to her cause. It was as if people were eager to help, but just waiting for the opportunity to do so. A charity can’t publicize itself like a for profit company. They must use grassroots influences and campaigns to market their causes. Through Facebook, email, Eblogger and Twitter, Tiffany was able to raise the $2,000 within two short weeks to send the students to the leadership academy in Nicaragua.

Matt, Truong and Christian all had embarked on similar endeavors after their feeling of philanthropy refused to subside after leaving Nicaragua in 2008. During their trip to Nicaragua, they met a young student named Pedro. Pedro carried around a dirty, torn up dictionary in his arms everywhere he went. With courage, bravado and confidence, he walked up to the three American college students and told them in broken English that he was trying to learn English. Pedro then hung around Matt, Christian and Truong, hoping to learn as much English as possible from them. This determined young boy had no clue what his persistent actions would bring him.

After returning to the states, they felt like it was their duty to ensure that Pedro learned English. They collectively started the “Change-It Project,” a non-profit that would help fund small projects around the world. They successfully funded a scholarship for Pedro to attend the same bilingual leadership academy in Leon.

After Tiffany returned from Nicaragua and had gained some notoriety amongst the campus culture for raising money to fund Nicaraguan scholarships, Matt, Truong and Christian asked her to help develop their “Change-it Project” logo, as they figured Tiffany’s experience in graphic design would prove to be important. Soon after its inception, the “Change-It Project” group received news that their name was already in use with another organization, so their entire logo and name would need to be changed.

In such a competitive world, branding and individuality are some of the most important pieces of a business, be it for profit or non-profit. As a graphic design specialist, Tiffany was the perfect mind and consultant for the group. Matt, Truong and Christian reached out to Tiffany again and officially asked her to join them as a board member to their then unnamed non-profit. As a group, they decided that Pyxis, a constellation and Greek word for Mariner’s Compass, signified their mission and ideals for people to “find their way”, with an element of mystery and intrigue, all while sounding aesthetic and smooth. In 2011, The Pyxis Foundation was born.

Now began much of the hard work. At first, ideas were all over the place. Each founder had ideas for funding positive change in a different part of the world: Africa, Guatemala, Indonesia, to name just a few. But they knew that selecting a place where they all shared a common knowledge and love for, would make the most sense. Tiffany remembers the group conversation during their weekly Skype meeting, “We all have a shared experience there, so we knew we wanted to do something in Nicaragua.”

So far, Pyxis Foundation has partially funded the production and development of a multipurpose athletic court in Kepuhdoko,

Pedro Teaching

Pedro teaching at Alianza.

Indonesia where co-founder, Truong, was serving in the Peace Corps. Pyxis has partially or fully funded six scholarships for students in Nicaragua to study at Alianza Americana. There, they learn the skills necessary to improve their lives, themselves, their communities and enhance their opportunities. At AA, the students of the school complete the program and many continue their careers as teachers there. Pedro, the young boy with the torn up dictionary, and first scholarship recipient of Pyxis (Formerly the Change-It Group), is now a teacher at AA, spreading his wealth of knowledge and his journey, often in perfect English.

Pyxis communicates with prominent community members to encourage Nicaraguan student applicants to apply for the scholarship. Income, lifestyle, family size, etc. are taken into effect on the applications, but the applicants must stress whether they are motivated to not only help themselves and their own opportunities, but bring that knowledge and success into their communities to improve the people and places around them as well. A 13 year old Nicaraguan boy, Jose Luis, put it nicely when he stated on his application, “I will do whatever it takes to achieve my goals, and be a leader in my community, and my country”.

For the time being, Pyxis is focusing on funding scholarships for young motivated students in Nicaragua, but is open to other types of projects that require funding, so long as they meet the mission of being sustainable in nature. Their media presence continues to grow. Their Twitter handle, Facebook page and website has shown significant increases in online presence and activity. The group visited Nicaragua in July, and as they uploaded pictures, videos and content from their trip to their Facebook page, total likes on Facebook increased four-fold.

Pyxis is currently waiting on their 501(c)(3) status to be recognized by the I.R.S. Until that occurs, all of their capital comes from private un-taxable donations and their own pockets. This also restricts them from applying for grants and corporate donations, severely limiting their ability to market themselves and fund more than one project at a time. However, their persistence is unwavering. Whenever motivation and determination run low, the founders and members engage recipients of a Pyxis scholarship via Facebook or Skype, to reinvigorate themselves. Oftentimes, the founder of Alianza Americana, renews their hopes and reboots their sense of philanthropy, pride and community. Those in Nicaragua who have experienced the amazing projects being completed by Pyxis are the first people to reach out to the founders and ensure them that they are truly making a difference in this country and the entire world.

With the launch of their new fundraising campaign “Threads for Success” they have linked up with a Nicaraguan non-profit called Nica-Hope, which provides education, vocational training and alternative income generation to youth from the community in and around the Managua city trash dump. Nica Hope is making bracelets for Pyxis that reflects the organizations three key values, “Empowerment, Leadership and Sustainability.” These bracelets can be purchased on the Pyxis website for 15 dollars each. All of the money goes towards Pyxis funded projects.

The Pyxis Foundation has a long way to go to reach the heights of the most successful and international non profits in the world. How many non profits can you think of that were started by intelligent, motivated, experienced 21 year old men and women? Not many, I would imagine. Pyxis had its first in person board meeting in March of 2012, surely the first of many to come. The founders meet via Google+ Hangouts weekly to discuss their progress, often including Nicaraguan key individuals such as Oscar Aragon, founder and owner of Alianza Americana. Pyxis often links the donors with the projects and their beneficiaries, bringing a face, a story and progress updates straight to the donor. The amount of work and dedication that these founders and board members put in, is incredible. Keep in mind that this entire organization has been conceived during free time, outside of the full time jobs that every founder and board member holds.

Nobody is embodying the entire mission of “Get Busy” quite like this group. We can all get busy doing something – writing, learning, traveling and teaching. It doesn’t matter what it is, it matters that we do what we were truly meant to do. So as we all look up from our desks and cubicles in the competitive hustle and bustle of the big city, and we peer out our windows into the horizon telling ourselves that we can wait until tomorrow before we set off to change the world, in whatever way that may be. We know that there are people out there like Tiffany, Matt, Hillary, Christian and Truong, who didn’t wait another day.

For more information on Pyxis or to give a donation please visit the Pyxis Facebook page.

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