One April afternoon, I answered my phone not expecting to hear the voices of 20 elementary school children on the other end. They were calling to inform me that CURE Childhood Cancer was under consideration for a grant through their “Penny Harvest” program and to invite me to their school to present to them information about CURE’s work and how we would use a grant if we were selected. “Please come prepared to tell us how we can be involved with CURE if you are chosen,” they explained. “We don’t want to just give money to organizations. We want to be involved with the organizations we choose.”
That phone call was the beginning of one of the most meaningful and inspiring grant experiences I have ever had. “Penny Harvest,” I learned, is a service-learning and youth philanthropy program that grew from the desire of a four year old to feed a homeless man in 1991 (to read the incredible story of its beginnings, go to www.pennyharvest.org). Two years ago, Mary Lin Elementary School mom, Paula Kupersmith, brought the program to Atlanta and has been overseeing the students’ efforts.
Starting in the fall, each class at Mary Lin discusses community problems and decides on an issue that is of the greatest importance to the students in that class. The issues chosen by each class are added to a huge “Wheel of Caring” which is displayed in the school. Then, the students “hit the streets,” connecting with their parents, friends, and neighbors in search of pennies. This year, the remarkable elementary students collected more than $4,100 in pennies!!!!
Once the pennies are collected, the children are tasked with deciding how to spend their harvested funds. Student leaders from each grade sit on a roundtable to study the problems of importance to their school community and research which community organizations would best address those problems. Organizations identified are then invited by the student leaders themselves to speak directly with them through an in-school presentation.
I make presentations often and love to talk about the work we do. But I admit, I was nervous. How do you explain the problem of childhood cancer to children ages 6-11 without scaring them? “Don’t worry,” said Paula Kupersmith. “Cancer is an important issue to these kids. They are very smart, and they can handle it.”
Paula was right. The children were attentive and wise beyond their years. They asked great questions and showed incredible compassion and empathy for children with cancer.
I was thrilled when I got the call that CURE was one of the organizations chosen by the children to receive a grant. The debates had been vigorous, I heard, but CURE would receive a portion of the money collected by the students. “When it came to this year’s classroom goals for their community, diseases ranked high on the list,” states the report from the children. “Cancer was brought to the forefront by 10% of the school’s population. Though other organizations interviewed for grants to help children in hospitals, CURE won out because leaders felt this organization not only helps families become more comfortable in hospitals during cancer and chemotherapy treatments, but continues to work hard toward the cure for cancer itself, hopefully eliminating the need for children’s suffering in the leaders’ lifetime.”
Perhaps CURE has received grants of larger dollar amounts in the course of my 3 years with the organization. But never have we received a grant award that means as much to me as this one. I sincerely hope other schools will get involved with the Penny Harvest program. The lessons these students learned through their experiences just might last a lifetime. Let’s hope so.