Over the past two years, I have been on a journey to become a philanthropist through the Youth Grant Committee at Grand Rapids Community Foundation. When I joined my freshman year after a competitive application process, I was amazed at how many new people I met. We have a very diverse community and I loved stepping out of my comfort zone and connecting with other students.
One great experience was the 2017 Summer Leader Conference at Central Michigan University, hosted by the Council of Michigan Foundations. The purpose of this conference is to connect youth grantmakers across the state of Michigan so we can understand youth philanthropy beyond our own communities. I made amazing friends that I still stay in touch with while learning more about philanthropy. At the conference, we talked about the differences in our Youth Advisory Committees and the things that we accomplished in our very own communities. I shared that in Grand Rapids, we combine hands-on service activities with our grantmaking to show appreciation for and to stay connected to our community. For example, this past year, our Youth Grant Committee went to Comprenew, a nonprofit electronics refurbisher and recycler, and volunteered to help break down computers and recycle them. We made blankets for kids in the community at our annual all-nighter event. And, we went to two high schools to redecorate the school store and make Valentine’s Day gifts for teachers.
In addition to community service, our committee is also responsible for deciding how to allocate $50,000 each year to local organizations. We make grant decisions based on applications, proposal reviews, site visits, and conversations with nonprofits. Over the past year, we also used a needs assessment survey to prioritize our giving on issues like mental health. Grand Rapids is a huge city, where many mental health problems exist and have far-reaching effects on unemployment, homelessness, education, and physical health. Thus, our Youth Grant Committee decided to focus our grantmaking on this very important topic. For example, we gave a grant to Oakdale Neighbors, a summer camp that helps 50 elementary-age students develop healthy habits with contemporary hip-hop, reading practice, and community gardening, and prepares them for the upcoming school year. The grantmaking process is not always easy, but the strength and wisdom of our committee helps us stay motivated and work as a team to address the needs of our community.
We also focused on related issues that impact our environment, families, students, teens, and physical health. Planned Parenthood of Michigan’s Streetwise to Sex-wise: Protecting High Risk Teens project was important to us because we could help to teach high-risk youth in the juvenile detention center in our community how to be sexually safe, healthy, and responsible through lessons covering topics like healthy relationships, positive self-esteem, and healthy sexual decision-making. We felt this project would encourage young adults to get proper mental and physical health care. And it was clear through our grantmaking process that everyone believed in the work of this organization.
Another program that was well-needed in our community was D.A. Blogget- St.John’s Peer 2 Peer Mentoring Program. This initiative enlists high school students as mentors for elementary school students who are struggling academically or behaviorally. When I was in elementary school, I would have loved to have had a mentor-figure as well as received extra help academically. To support a program that offers guidance for these younger students and nurtures their self-confidence was an amazing opportunity that we couldn’t pass up.
During this upcoming year, as a committee we hope to include immigration as a grantmaking focus, while continuing to keep the mental health needs in our community in mind. It has been an immense pleasure to connect with the people in my community and be a voice for change, and I am excited to continue this journey. There are more opportunities to get involved with youth philanthropy than I ever knew existed before, from local community foundations with YACs or similar youth boards, to programs in schools. If you’re looking to make a difference in your community, reach out to the adults and teachers in your life to learn about opportunities around you, and if there isn’t one remember you can always start your own!