Kids Helping Kids

October 21, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Grand Rapids is well known as a charitable community. Every year, millions of dollars are raised for a vast array of nonprofit organizations; much of that money is then reinvested in the community to create educational, recreational and social programs. Considering the massive scale of philanthropic funds that flow around West Michigan, it doesn’t seem like $54,000 would go very far. But don’t tell that to the Grand Rapids Community Foundation’s Youth Grant Committee.

For less than the price tag of a new Hummer H3, the 2004-2005 committee’s 33 teenagers helped teach life skills to visually impaired kids, provided support to pregnant teens and funding for programs to reduce the teen pregnancy rate, introduced the sport of hockey to at-risk 6- to 9-year-olds, bought special wheelchairs for a team of disabled basketball players, provided substance abuse counseling for teens, and started a computer camp.

Along with the new school year, a new session of the YGC has convened. This year, 32 teens from public and private schools (and home schools) across West Michigan are being introduced to the world of charitable giving from the inside out. During the course of the school year, the committee will accept grant proposals, examine them in minute detail, choose the most outstanding candidates, and by the time graduation day rolls around, hand out more than $50,000 in new grants for programs that better the lives of West Michigan’s young people.

The YGC program started in the early 1990s, when the W.K. Kellogg Foundation challenged cities throughout the state to establish or strengthen community foundations. The Kellogg foundation also was eager to provide for youth programs, and therefore established a fund-matching program. The Grand Rapids Community Foundation raised $2 million for its general fund, and the Kellogg Foundation provided $1 million to start a Youth Fund in 1994.

Even with the annual grant dispersals, that fund has grown to a value of nearly $1.6 million. The Kellogg Foundation also gave a second grant to establish a “pay-down fund,” used to cover the general expenses associated with the program. The YGC has carefully and frugally handled those funds. After more than a decade, nearly $20,000 of the original $100,000 grant remains.

That same care extends to the committee’s handling of the funds it awards. Within the next few weeks, applications will start coming in for the 2006 grants. Last year the committee received requests totaling more than $300,000. The process of winnowing out the most deserving groups among a field of well-qualified applicants is arduous.

The process starts with a semi-annual survey of nearly 900 area young people. Through the survey, the YGC tries to pinpoint the types of programs that will benefit local youths most. In its most recent questionnaire, the committee learned that young West Michiganders are most interested in competitive sports programs for underserved communities, “real-life learning experiences” dealing with issues such as substance abuse and sex, and activities that focus on art, writing and music. The survey results help guide the decisions, but don’t make them any easier for the committee members to make.

“It’s so hard to decide who to give money to,” said Forest Hills Northern sophomore Jamie Forte. She said that committee members form strong opinions in favor of certain applicants. That can make for some pretty heated debates. Home-schooled 17-year-old Ryan Ritsema agreed. He said that discussions over “controversial” applicants such as Planned Parenthood Centers of West Michigan tend to bring out the ideological fervor of committee members. But that, according to program adviser Cris Kooyer, is part of the learning process.

As much as the YGC is designed to enrich the lives of West Michigan youth through grants, it is also a means of personal enrichment and education for members. Making difficult decisions, handling rejection, and learning the ability to keep a level head in an emotional debate are among the fringe benefits of serving on the YGC.

Of course, the students also have less magnanimous reasons for serving on the committee. As the committee members mulled over the agenda for their Oct. 11 meeting and munched on slices of pizza, Forte and Grand Rapids Catholic Central junior Jesús Delacruz discussed their rationale for joining YGC.

“It looks really good to colleges,” said Forte. “And you get volunteer hours.”

Delacruz piped up: “And free pizza.”    

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