It seems absurd that Bono would demand all the lights in the Denver Pepsi Center be shut off in the middle of a U2 concert. But that is exactly what he did on an April evening in 2005. In the darkness, he asked thousands of his devoted fans to do a very simple thing: send a text message on their phone. As people of all ages, races, and backgrounds complied, the center lit up with the sparkle of thousands of brightly-lit phone screens.
As sophomore political science major Matthew McAllister describes it, from his seat up in the nosebleed section of the center, it looked like “a starry night turned upside down.”
On that evening, McAllister changed his mind about humanitarianism.
“My vision of what humanitarianism looked like when I was a kid growing up was one of those TV commercials with starving children and a 1-800 number at the bottom, telling me I could pay with Visa or MasterCard,” McAllister said.
McAllister said this turned him off of humanitarianism.
The text message Bono asked his audience to send that night was for the ONE campaign: a non-partisan, non-profit campaign whose goal is to raise awareness about extreme poverty, hunger and preventable diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
This organization has since become McAllister’s passion and for the past three years he has been making changes across the nation to bring awareness to this campaign and its goals. McAllister has been a part of getting local leaders such as Gov. Bill Ritter involved with the campaign, successfully recruiting the Denver City Council to support the ONE campaign and passing a proclamation that declares CU a campus of ONE. The ONE CU student group is currently planning a signing ceremony for that proclamation to bring press attention to CU’s humanitarian values.
The ONE campus group was started by Erin Macdonald, a 21-year-old senior studying physics and mathematics. Macdonald had worked with the ONE campaign since it was created in 2005. She began the campus group in the fall of 2007, handing leadership over to McAllister in the spring of that same year.
“I think he’s one of those people that really cares about the cause,” Macdonald said. “He works hard to put together events and put the word out because he really believes in it. He’s a great leader.”
All of this and McAllister hasn’t even celebrated his 20th birthday yet.
“My age is the greatest advantage I have had in the past,” he said. “When a 16-year-old kid walks up [in front of a city council] and starts talking about children dying in Africa, all of a sudden the room goes silent. People stop sipping their water, passing notes, and all of a sudden every city council members’ eyes are right on you.”
McAllister defines the ONE campaign as philanthropy on a federal level. This behind the scenes work is what makes hands-on volunteering possible, McAllister says.
“It’s very easy to focus on all the numbers and legislation and forget that you’re talking about real people and their lives,” McAllister said. “By the same token, if that’s all you think about, you can’t be an effective advocate for anything.”
McAllister also participates in what he calls “ground work” philanthropy. Last winter he began volunteering with Boulder County Cares, an 8-year-old organization dedicated to helping the homeless population survive freezing nights in the city of Boulder.
Between October and early April BCC sends out volunteers in pairs of two with donated supplies such as blankets, sleeping bags, socks, backpacks, food and water. These volunteers visit sites across the city distributing donated supplies as well as responding to phone calls about the homeless in Boulder.
“We talk about the homeless as our clients,” McAllister said. “When we go to a site, we ask if anyone is home. We treat them with as much dignity as anyone else deserves. The relationship we have [with the homeless] is very unique compared to that of the public or the police.”
In his first season with BCC, McAllister worked mainly with “veteran” partners like Joe Pickett, a 61-year-old IBM employee who introduced McAllister to BCC. He and McAllister first got to know each other through a church trip that Pickett chaperoned.
“[McAllister] was one of the hardest working kids, right out of high school,” Pickett said. “A natural leader.”
Pickett, who worked with McAllister last season, calls McAllister “mature beyond his years” and says they have both learned sobering lessons from working with BCC.
“He and I both have a renewed perspective of life circumstances and making good choices versus bad choices,” he said. “The value of staying in school and making good choices, that’s what Matt and I have learned.”
While the ONE campaign is more tailored to McAllister’s interests, he began volunteering with BCC to escape the slow pace of advocacy at a federal level.
“I got into the ONE campaign first because I am a political guru, but it moves at a snail’s pace and drives you nuts,” he said. “That’s why I did more local volunteering. With BCC, you get to see that you saved a life that night. That’s a very satisfying feeling. Both sides are equally important. I got into BCC for very selfish reasons: to help my own sanity.”
While on different ends of the philanthropy spectrum, both BCC and the ONE campaign have one major thing in common: these organizations are about helping those who are unable to help themselves and that is what McAllister has dedicated himself to. He is planning to involve more people in the ONE campaign on campus and will continue to work with BCC in future years.
“The fact that someone who is just in high school or college cares about what is happening around the world really makes people listen,” McAllister said.
Published to CUIndependent.com on 9/11/08.