When people were struggling with the effects of the pandemic, Alexander Ren, an 8th grader at the time, wanted to help. In 2021, he started with friends in order to aid local nonprofits via fundraising and on-the-ground volunteering. The organization also hosts its own events, including food drives and clean-ups.
Alexander, now a high school sophomore, serves as the head director for Duluth as well as the executive director for CORA as a whole. The group has expanded to nine different branches with the help of motivated students across the country with the Duluth branch alone maintaining more than 40 people on staff.
In his free time, Alexander is a competitive swimmer who enjoys playing the piano and hanging out with his poodle. But more than anything, he loves helping people with his friends. His math tutoring program has helped more than 100 students. He has coached three elementary school math teams. He’s currently training to become a member of ski patrol.
What inspires you to volunteer?
Growing up, I had a lot of people supporting me: my parents, my grandparents, my teachers, my friends and so on. And now that I’m able to contribute to my community, I feel the duty to do so. I also just find volunteering with my friends to be super fun and rewarding.
What inspired you to get started with this initiative?
I started CORA with my friends when people around us were still struggling with the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. We felt we had to make a difference, even if small. Since then, CORA has grown to encompass the support of local and international nonprofits and has made direct improvements to our local community through that volunteering. Building upon our success in Duluth, we started recruiting passionate leaders who share our values and expanding CORA’s mission across the nation.
Tell us about your volunteer role with CORA.
I founded CORA and am the head director for the Duluth branch as well as the executive director of CORA as a whole. As the Duluth director, I help lead meetings and help plan small, student-led events like local cleanups. I also help design and facilitate large-scale competitions and events like the door-to-door fundraising campaign that’s going on now. I work with local and international charities to organize fundraising and volunteering. I’m the point person between CORA and multiple school administrations and student groups. I actively volunteer at events, and I cover miscellaneous administrative tasks like setting up PayPal accounts or managing bank account issues.
As the executive director of the overall organization, I lead the team dedicated to seeking out student leaders to start core branches and interview them. I verify volunteer hours for all 200 staff members and non-CORA students who attend events. I regularly advise branch leaders and leadership teams regarding their events and connect them with financial resources and skilled staff—graphic designers, tech people, contract writers, etc. And I help push the organization forward with new ideas.
What are your long-term plans or goals for the organization?
We want to continue to inspire students everywhere to start a branch of their own. In order to support existing and new branches, we’re looking at some potential company sponsorships. There have also been discussions regarding new initiatives and applications of the CORA methods in other fields. One recent idea was to provide free peer tutoring and tutor certification. We’re always looking for new student leaders to take initiative and push CORA to new horizons.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
It’s being able to see the impact firsthand. When I’m able to, for example, meet pet owners who have adopted pets from shelters that CORA has raised thousands of dollars to support. When I’m able to see people benefit from food that we’ve donated. When I’m able to walk down miles of lake walk trails with my dog that we helped clean, there’s really nothing like it.
What is your favorite CORA memory?
We’d been running a month-long food drive this spring with students from different schools competing in teams to stock our local food shelf. We had planned a day-long, door-to-door finale event in late April, and I woke up that morning to five-degree weather and snow. I encouraged people to stay home if they didn’t feel comfortable but mentioned that I would be there and, for those who came, I would try to figure out accommodations. After making some calls to people living nearby, I figured out a place teams might be able to stop in to warm up.
At the meeting time. I walked over to our rendezvous location with some boxes not expecting much, but what I saw was our full team—almost 30 people—warm, ready and excited. We had raised 500 pounds of food and hundreds of dollars. It really showed the resilience and passion of my team.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I have really experienced the importance of student leadership. Students like Oscar Thompson and William Shanks have really stepped up over the past few months in Duluth. They, like myself, started out without a ton of previous leadership opportunities, but through a personal sense of duty and drive to make change, really took initiative. I believe every student with passion can become a leader, and as an organization, we strive to provide opportunities.
Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?
Never give up. There will always be unsuccessful plans. Everyone makes mistakes. There will always be people criticizing your ideas and actions, even if those actions are doing good. People throw rocks at things that shine. Whenever something goes south, just think of the words of musician Rick Astley: Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down. Never gonna run around and desert you. Get up and keep going.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Alexander? Find local volunteer opportunities.