Christina Zerfas was logging accomplishments toward her nomination as ELEVATE’s Innovator of the Year Award before she even realized it, growing up with a mix of family volunteering and innate entrepreneurial spirit. Her teachers noted she started launching side hustles in grade school (from lemonade stands to selling school supplies). And according to Zerfas, her parents created a space for her to become involved in the community at an early age. “They achieved a perfect balance of always challenging me to be a better version of myself but making me feel enough.”
In high school Zerfas continued her own volunteer pursuits. One of her “community betterment schemes” as she calls them, entailed entering a fundraising competition to build the largest gingerbread house for Habitat for Humanity, and then working on a build alongside future homeowners. The more she volunteered and fundraised, the more she got hooked. “I get out of it more than I could ever give back. I try to make up for the debt, but it only grows.”
In college, she wrote her thesis on breaking cycles of poverty. While her academic work focused on long term solutions, she wanted to do something to alleviate immediate needs. The Patachou Foundation offered the perfect opportunity to help food-insecure kids get nourishing meals and learn about healthy choices. She said: “It’s a major disappointment that there are kids in Central Indiana who are going hungry, but this is something we can act upon. Showing up is so important.”
In her role as Ambassador for Brookside Elementary (IPS 54), Zerfas was tasked with raising $7,000 – the amount needed to cover one day to feed students in the afterschool program. When Zerfas realized the program was offered 3 days a week she tripled her goal to cover the student need for all three days. Not content with one challenge, Zerfas set out to raise all of the money in one day through a single event, a hunger banquet called Project Nourish.
During Project Nourish attendees were assigned an income class upon entry – with their meal corresponding to their assigned means. “This brought an empathy and understanding to the table. I loved seeing people learn about the issue in this way. We did reveal a hidden buffet after we made our point, so no one actually went hungry at the event.”
Recently, the entrepreneur bug bit again, and Zerfas launched her own nonprofit, Cans for Kili. Initially she simply wanted to fund a trip to climb Kilimanjaro. After launching a plan to collect aluminum cans to fund the trip, other people wanted in on the action. Now, the organization boasts 4 chapters across 3 nations, and promotes recycling and environmentalism around the world.
Zerfas’ nominator for the Innovator Award added that aside from all of Zerfas’ achievements in the fundraising and nonprofit space, she takes the time to coach and mentor her peers, helping them set big, audacious goals. When we shared this praise with her, Zerfas said: “What I draw energy from is seeing people achieve more than they ever thought they could. They always had it in them, they just need to see it. People have more power in their pinky finger than they even know.”
Given her zest for finding creative ways to make a difference, we’re sure to hear more from Christina Zerfas in the future. We can’t wait to see what’s next for this serial innovator and entrepreneur!