Leaders in Philanthropy: Youth Organization Lends a Helping Hand

These benevolent Fox Valley high schoolers are wasting no time in leaving their mark on this region. With a little help from a local community foundation, they’re getting a hands-on introduction to fundraising, grantmaking and the business of nonprofit organization.

(Thomas J King photo)

Tatum Smith, a freshman at St. Charles East High School, always had an interest in philanthropy, but she found herself doing the same activities each year.

“The amount of food drives that I’ve done since the third grade has to be a record,” says Smith, a longtime student council member at her school. “Those are important, but I really wanted to experience a wider variety of ways to help the community.”

Tatum Smith (CFFRV photo)

So, when her mother told her about the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley’s (CFFRV) Youth Engagement in Philanthropy Program (YEP), Smith at first wondered if she’d encounter more of the same.
It turns out the program was something she’s always envisioned. Through YEP, she found an outlet for helping people on a larger scale, in a real-world context.

“The more I researched YEP and the more I got involved, the more I enjoyed the program,” she says.

YEP, as the students call it, enables local high schoolers to explore the fundraising and grantmaking processes – two major components to any successful nonprofit organization. For the 22 students from eight Fox Valley-area high schools, YEP is a classroom and laboratory, but it’s also a real-world program that helps them to leave a lasting imprint on their community.

As they prepare to distribute $25,000 – an amount they helped to raise – these students are proving there’s no reason or excuse to wait until adulthood to live a life of philanthropy.

“The YEP members come from a variety of high schools throughout the Fox Valley area,” says Cathy Schwieger, director of grantmaking with the CFFRV. “They met each other in the beginning, and through the program they’ve become friends. They took this on as their own. The leadership and teamwork are just incredible.”

Their work is setting the stage for big things to come. This year’s group is the second round of students to go through YEP. Last year’s inaugural cohort brought together 18 students from five high schools. Next year’s class has more applicants than available spots.

“I think having these students share their opinions and perspectives makes it a much richer process,” says Anna Oelerich, marketing and communications coordinator with the CFFRV. “If you’re collaborating with students from different communities, with different viewpoints, the program is much more fulfilling.”

YEP receives a guiding touch from the team at CFFRV, an Aurora-based organization that knows a thing or two about nonprofits.

Established in 1948, CFFRV is a nonprofit, tax-exempt public charity that gives individuals, families and organizations a chance to create permanent endowments and temporary funds with the help of one large foundation.

Some of these funds provide grants for nonprofit organizations and scholarships for students across Aurora, the Tri-Cities and Kendall County. Distributions from other funds support social service agencies, educational and health care organizations, the arts, churches and environmental causes.

In the beginning, CFFRV only had one charitable fund with more than $5,000 in assets. Today, the foundation has more than 600 charitable funds with more than $100 million in assets.

As part of their time in YEP, students participate in service projects like this one, where they separated and peeled crayons for a DuPage County-area philanthropy. The crayons are melted and molded into larger ones that are used by children with special needs.
(Thomas J King photo)

Making an Impact

Since the YEP was launched two years ago, its youths have been making their impact felt in the Fox Valley.

“When we launched this program, we wanted to engage young people in the spirit of philanthropy so they could understand what giving their time, talent and treasure looks like and how it feels to give back to their community,” says Julie Christman, president and CEO of CFFRV.

“As these students grow up, they’ll be connected to their community so when they become adults, it’ll feel natural to be connected to various nonprofits. We want to introduce them to these services and help them understand what it means to give back.”

Before going public, Christman and her team did something the students do all the time: lots of homework.
“We researched similar programs throughout the country and found other community foundations with youth engagement programming,” she says. “We tried to take what was working best in those places and bring it here.”

“We took our time and asked a lot of questions, knowing a program like YEP would be a fantastic way to engage the community,” she adds.

YEP is currently open to any high school student in CFFRV’s service area, which covers southern Kane County, Aurora, and all of Kendall County. There’s an online application that allows students to express themselves while describing their philanthropic goals and community interests.

They don’t need to have experience in philanthropy or a certain grade point average to apply. Instead, students need to be eager and committed to being a bigger part of their community. Up to 25 students will be selected.

“During the application process, students are asked to describe their passions in a few open-ended questions,” Oelerich says. “We ask them about their love for the community and the causes they’re interested in. We have some students who are interested in the environment and others who are interested in anti-bullying causes. There’s no right answer to what causes they care about, but we want to see if they’re community-minded. They need to be passionate about making a difference.”

Some of the students are involved in their school and in leadership positions, like student council. Others are still figuring out their favorite extracurricular activity.

“We want to know if they’re willing to learn and if they’re able and willing to put in the time, because this is a time commitment,” Oelerich says.

The program includes monthly meetings during the school year that typically last about 2 hours. This year, because of COVID-19 concerns, students are meeting virtually on Zoom.

Through YEP, the students can learn and develop a wealth of skills, including decision making, conflict resolution, leadership and planning, fundraising and building relationships.

“I decided to apply because I love volunteering and I was looking for a way to give back to the community and learn more about it,” says Bethany Anderson, a freshman at Oswego East High School, in Oswego. “With the help of this program, I’ve been able to develop community skills and I’ve made friends. Everyone has been so welcoming, and it’s truly been an amazing experience.”

YEP students used the #BeTheGood hashtag to help raise $25,000, which they’re now distributing to local nonprofits that benefit young people. (CFFRV photo)

25,000 Reasons to Get Involved

Perhaps the apex of the YEP experience is the moment when students award $25,000 in grants to nonprofit organizations across the Fox Valley. Because of the nature of this program, there’s a special emphasis placed on organizations that either serve or benefit local youths.

To qualify, area nonprofits and programs must serve children 18 and younger. Grant winners can receive between $500 and $5,000 to spend within a year.

This year, YEP students were thrown a curveball when they were asked to raise that money themselves. They rose to the occasion.

Early on, the students received a matching grant of $12,500 from Aurora’s Dunham Foundation. Then, they worked tirelessly to raise the other $12,500 through a special Giving Tuesday campaign last November.

“Giving Tuesday was our main fundraiser,” says Abby Vagnoni, a junior from Rosary High School, in Aurora. “We emailed friends, family and community members seeking donations. We also spread the word on social media.”

They also received a big boost from CFFRV’s Board of Directors. Not only did the students share their plans and vision, and receive feedback for improvement, but the board members used their own personal networks to promote the students’ fundraiser. Christman and her team pitched in some of their own resources and connections, as well.

“Some of this year’s donors were already familiar with the Community Foundation, and we promoted YEP through our channels to let them know about the Giving Tuesday campaign,” Christman says. “The students even shared a video encouraging community members to give.”

YEP gives area high school students, like Batavia High School senior Cole Hemmes, a chance to explore philanthropy through real-world, hands-on work with the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley. (CFFRV photo)

‘It’s a lot Harder Than it Looks’

The toughest decision the students have had to make is how to divvy up the funds. The students found themselves with 33 applicants who were requesting a total of $132,000. But they only had $25,000 to allocate.

With guidance from the CFFRV staff, students have spent the past few months reviewing, evaluating and awarding these grant proposals together. They’re also researching each organization, to ensure it’s a proper fit.

“They had to examine the organizations and the potential impact these projects would have on the community,” Schwieger says. “They reviewed each organization’s budget and goals, all while being fiscally responsible, and it was really impressive.”

This was more than just a class project. These students handed out real money to real organizations.

“Raising money and thoughtfully allocating the funds helps the students understand what it feels like to give out grant dollars, rather than raise money and send it to one organization,” Christman says. “This allows them to have a real leadership role.”

Saying no to someone in need of funding, especially during a pandemic, was not easy, students say. Making those types of decisions really put things into perspective.

“This is such a great program, and it’s hard to pick between which projects received the grants because they’re such amazing programs,” says Elliot Egan, a freshman at Geneva High School. “At the same time, I’m extremely happy to be a part of this, because it really does help the community a lot.”

Smith, the St. Charles freshman, found the selection process to be “a little rough.”

“These are all good places doing good things, and to only have a certain amount of money you can actually give them – it’s hard to think about,” she says. “It’s a lot harder than it looks.”

Eventually, the students focused on 10 agencies they thought were the best fit. The final recipients will be announced in June.

Last year’s cohort disbursed $25,000 in funds to nine nonprofit organizations, including African American Men of Unity, which used the funds to help launch a college and career program for at-risk youth.

Fox Valley Food for Health used its funding to help provide equipment and supplies to teen chef volunteers.
Northern Illinois Food Bank gave 460 backpacks filled with food to area children whose families were impacted by the economic fallout of COVID-19.

“Thank you, YEP, for your partnership and for setting an example of how to be a force for good in our community,” says Jeannine Kannegiesser, the food bank’s director of corporate and foundation giving.

“Hopefully, the students feel a sense of satisfaction knowing that these are real initiatives that are benefiting kids their age and they’re playing a part in that,” Oelerich says.

Quinn Butler, a junior at West Aurora High School, likens the grantmaking process to the butterfly effect, the idea that one small thing, like a butterfly flapping its wings, can cause large effects into the future.

“Us flapping our wings now with this $25,000 may have an impact of millions of dollars going forward as it ripples across the area,” he says. “It can really have an impressive impact.”

Instead of sleeping in on a recent Saturday, several YEP students got muddy with the Conservation Foundation and pitched in at the Farnsworth House, a national landmark and historic site in Plano. It was one of several ways the students have engaged in community service while also seeing behind-the-scenes processes in philanthropy. (CFFRV photo)

Leaving Their Legacy

If funding nonprofits isn’t enough, the students of YEP also participate in at least one service project during the school year.

This past March, students gathered gently used shoes for young clients of Mutual Ground, a nonprofit organization that works with victims of domestic and sexual violence and anyone impacted by substance abuse disorders.

“We held a shoe drive and we collected 90 pairs of shoes for the children at the shelter,” says Anderson, of Oswego East. “We were pretty grateful for all of the donations.”

Students also spent a recent Saturday doing some spring cleaning around the Farnsworth House, a national landmark and historic site in Plano.

“We did restoration cleanup right outside the house, and we were there for about 4 hours, partnering with the Conservation Foundation,” Anderson says.

Late last year, students also recorded “Virtual Storytime” videos, which featured them reading their favorite children’s books. The goal was to emphasize the importance of reading to young children and to provide a free resource during the pandemic.

Featured books included “The Giving Tree,” “The Rainbow Fish,” and “The Mystery of the Stolen Blue Paint.” Videos were shared on CFFRV’s social media channels and the Fox Valley United Way as part of the SPARK early childhood education initiative.

Vagnoni, of Rosary High, says the leadership skills she’s developed during her short time with YEP are invaluable. She’s confident they’ll not only benefit her right now, but also long after she’s left high school.

“I absolutely love the leadership aspect of it and giving back to the community,” she says. “We’re so young, and schools don’t usually talk about philanthropy because it’s usually in your future. Being on a board of directors is not something I would’ve considered, but now that I’ve been exposed to philanthropy, that’s something I’m more interested in because I love what we’re doing with YEP. It definitely helps open that door and makes me want to consider that kind of involvement in the future.”

Butler says he’s looking forward to sharing all the good things happening in and around the Fox Valley. And, he’s even hoping his friends and family can get involved.

“This can have an even greater impact than it has on our group,” Butler says. “When my friends ask how my weekend was, I can say that I participated in a philanthropy, grant-making process and I did all these cool things with this service organization, and maybe they’ll want to get involved. The influence that we have on our peers as leaders in philanthropy and service is immeasurable.”