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Give it away now

“Here’s $5,000, kid. Now go save the world.” That’s how this teen philanthropy program works

Somebody gave students at Desert Oasis High School $5,000 and they went on an epic spending spree. Typical teens.

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Or maybe not so typical: The students spent the money on preventing teen pregnancy, fighting youth homelessness and raising awareness about drug abuse and alcoholism.

That’s because they’re part of an educational program that’s anything but typical, too. It’s called We R Community, put together by the Public Education Foundation. The program is added on to classes at participating schools — in the case of Desert Oasis, Tina Fulks’ marketing class.

“The lessons that they learn through the process is nothing they can learn from a textbook,” Fulks says of her 25 students involved in the We R Community program at Desert Oasis. They’ve collectively completed more than 1,000 hours of community service this school year.

Hers is one of 13 high school classes in the Clark County School District that participated in the program this academic year. All the classes are different subjects and at different high schools, but they all receive the same challenge: A philanthropy guidebook — and the responsibility of giving $5,000 away to charities and nonprofits serving their community.

“We’re teaching students the business of philanthropy and the value of community service,” says Leslie DeVore, We R Community’s program manager. And they’ve taught a lot: Since the program’s launch in 2008, We R Community students have awarded $130,000 to more than 50 local nonprofit organizations and in-school clubs. This year’s awards total $65,000, which will go to 31 local nonprofit organizations.

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The program spreads the wealth in two ways. It offers a chance for students to engage in service learning while also distributing money — which comes from private and corporate donors — to programs that help their peers.

“It’s very heart-warming and uplifting,” says Savannah Henry, a 16-year-old sophomore at Sierra Vista High School. “You wish you could do so much more to help them.”

Students in the Sierra Vista journalism class this year have been able to write about their experiences visiting local nonprofits. Students also volunteer two to four hours each month with a nonprofit organization.

“It’s made me realize I have a better life than some people,” says Henry, who volunteered at Three Square, a charity dedicated to feeding the hungry. “It makes you realize you’re really lucky.”

The giving teens

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Providing meals to hungry youth and saving teens from couch-surfing are just surface-level issues the program addresses. The deeper issue We R Community works to defeat lies at the root the community.

“We as a community don’t give much,” says Carolyn Edwards, Clark County School Board president. Indeed, Las Vegas has a well-earned reputation for not being a very charitable city. We R Community aims to change that as well — by getting a head start on the next generation. The program gives high school students the opportunity to witness how their efforts make a difference, Edwards says.

“Sometimes teenagers are so wrapped up in themselves they don’t take the time to focus on the things outside themselves.”

Public Education Foundation President Judi Steele adds, “We’re hoping this program will inspire a new generation of philanthropists.”

Giving away $5,000 to good causes may sound simple, but acting as a professional foundation takes a toll on students taking it to heart. Milynda Walters, 17, is a senior at Chaparral High School and considers We R Community a perspective-changing experience. Walters and her classmates directed their funds towards organizations focused on preventing teen pregnancy and helping teen moms graduate.

“You do get nerves,” says Walters, who was concerned whether the money would truly make a difference. Visiting sites and volunteering eased her worry. During site visits, students engage with area nonprofits to see for themselves the operations asking for their assistance.

One We R Community grant recipient is the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, a nonprofit that works to get homeless teens off the streets. Throughout the years, Executive Director Tim Mulin has had students of We R Community visit different drop-off locations.

“I think they really get a lot out of it and saw firsthand what they were funding,” Mulin says.

They liked what they saw. This year, Northwest Career and Technical Academy’s We R Community students awarded Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth $1,000.

Save the world

Who gets the money isn’t an easy decision. Once a school is sponsored, students set off to identify and address the critical community needs that matter most to them and write a mission statement. Classes focus on everything from mental health to teen pregnancy.

“We encourage them to follow their hearts,” Devore says. “I want this to be student-run, student-led. I want their buy-in.”

Students survey their schools to find out the pressing issues — which often gives them a window of insight into their peers. For example, this year, nine of the 13 mission statements had to do with forms of abuse. DeVore attributes this to drug and alcohol abuse at home.

“Unfortunately, this is what the schools are seeing,” she says.

When picking what issue to tackle, students complete project assignments weekly, such as inviting charitable organizations to send in grant requests. These organizations submit proposals outlining how they’ll use the funds. After reviewing the applications, students select the recipients.

Dry erase markers may not have been flung in bursts of protest, but arguments over which nonprofits are most deserving do happen. Walters says her peers debated on how to split up the money among organizations they chose.

By then, teachers like Fulks see how much student attitudes have changed. After going through the program, that stereotypical teen self-absorption melts away, she says.

“(We R Community) taught them a huge lesson about human compassion and the concept of community.” 


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