Innovation takes center stage at Changemaker Challenge

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

The Kossiaoff Center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab looked a bit more like the set of ABC’s “Shark Tank” Monday night, as 10 innovators pitched their ideas for social change in Howard County.

United Way of Central Maryland and the Horizon Foundation co-hosted the first Changemaker Challenge on Oct. 30, giving finalists the chance to propose ideas for products and programs to improve life in Howard County. A panel of judges from the two organizations then chose three winners, each of whom received $10,000 in seed money as well as consultation services from the groups.

Ideas touched on a number of aspects of life in Howard County, ranging from affordable housing to youth sports and the environment.

Horizon Foundation President and CEO Nikki Highsmith Vernick, who initially approached United Way of Central Maryland President and CEO Franklin Baker about the challenge earlier this year, said the idea was meant to “create a vehicle to lift up voices of social change.”

The challenge received 44 applicants, which were whittled down to the 10 finalists based on how innovative their idea was, its potential impact on the community and the effectiveness the funds would have in launching the project. Both organizations are providing 50 percent of the total funding of each project, according to Baker.

The winners last night were Erin Cassell for her pitch to construct safe and artistic bus shelters along Route 1 in Elkridge; Beth Sandbower Harbinson for her idea for non-alcoholic drinks to serve at public events called “SOBAR”; and Danielle Staton for her idea to establish an early college readiness program for Howard County students.

Cassell, who hopes to construct bus shelters that include public art, a free library and trash and recycling recepticles, said she was “very excited” to be chosen as a winner. Route 1 in Elkridge includes 25 bus stops, and only three currently have shelters. Cassell said she wanted to build the artistic shelters so that “bus riders are not going to be standing there in the mud, but that they have somewhere beautiful to be, to feel worthy.”

“[Changemaker Challenge] was a great experience because we all got to meet other people in the community who have powerful ideas for change,” Cassell said.

She said the $10,000 will be used primarily to build the first prototype for the shelter.

Sandbower Harbinson’s idea to create special non-alcoholic drinks to be sold at public events, as well as to host social events for those in recovery, hit home with audience members last night.

As she began her presentation she asked people to stand if their program had a sticker on it, meaning they represented someone with alcoholism or who is on medication that prohibits alcohol; she also asked all those who were under 21 or chose not to drink to stand. By the last group, at least one person at nearly every table was standing.

Sandbower Harbinson, who told the crowd she has over 10 years of sobriety, wants to see venues like Merriweather Post Pavilion sell the drinks she’s dubbed “SOBAR” to provide non-alcoholic options beyond water and soda. One of her concoctions, a coconut ginger fizz, was offered at the bar during the Changemaker Challenge.

She said the money will give her project a “strong foundation” to help her craft an 18-month business plan, establish a board of directors and put together focus groups for feedback on the idea.

The final winner of the night, Danielle Staton, won for her idea to establish a college readiness program for seventh-graders in Howard County, primarily aimed at those who would be first-generation college students or who are from low-income families. The program would establish a cohort of students, who would stay together in the program through high school and college, to help ensure they earn a bachelor’s degree.

Staton said the money would be used to launch a free summer intensive program for 20 to 30 students, which would include college visits and tutoring.

“The success of this program means success for Howard County schools,” Staton told the crowd. “So who’s with me? Who’s ready to grow another cohort of Howard County changemakers?”

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