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Child Philanthropists Take Action In Their Rogue Valley Communities

Bill McLean
Washington Elementary School students Kassidy Strain (l) and Jazmine Hernandez evaluate local non-profit groups as they collaborate to funnel charity funds to the most deserving applicants.

Once upon a time, most of our children were so isolated from the social ills of our culture that adults thought them innocent, and unable to understand, much less resolve, serious social  problems.

Today’s youngsters, though, are often surrounded by troubling situations. The Oregon Community Foundation is using local schools to teach children to be philanthropists in their own communities.

Not long ago, Medford benefactor Patsy Smullin sat down to allocate her charity budget for local non-profits, but instead of deciding which charity, she gave the money to a group of little kids and let them choose. She says they already know about ... or have experienced ... the worst childhood has to offer.

Patsy Smullin: “Often terrible things are going on in their own families. They understand the effects of poverty, they understand the effects of addiction of all kinds ...  you know, any one of many, many things, they know better than you and me. Of course, there are a lot of issues that exist today that didn’t when we were in third grade.”

Why, then, would a small group of third through sixth graders in Medford actually volunteer to stay after school once every week to help Smullin donate $5,000?

Childrens’ voices: “ ... to help people with their problems in life ... because I like helping people  ... I like helping people ... I want to help people ... I want to help people have a better life ... help people and I would like to stop things that will hurt them ... to make the community a better place ... I wanted to make the world a better place.” 

School teacher Michael Dawson is the school’s staff advisor for Community-101. C-101 is an Oregon Community Foundation effort designed to help high school students learn that philanthropy is less about money than it is about solving problems. Dawson says they get the part about problems, even the younger students. 

Michael Dawson: “Many of these kids are savvy beyond their years, which on the one hand is impressive, on the other hand it’s a sign that they’ve had to deal with things that are beyond their years. So yeah, it’s a double-edged sword. They’re very savvy, but it didn’t come for free for most of these kids.”

A price, he says, not paid in US dollars.

Ruby Cabrera: “Hi, My name is Ruby and I’m a fifth-grader and I’m 10 years old.”

Ruby Cabrera is 11 now. She says it’s hard to ignore drug addiction, child abuse or other dangers in the community.

Ruby Cabrera: “In the streets you could tell people are going through stuff, like problems in their family, and some people are in the streets homeless and I thought that was important, like ... I want to help the world not be like that, so...”

When school began, Dawson’s C-101 team polled their fellow students at Washington Elementary to get their take on the community’s most serious issues. They studied non-profit organizations that address those issues, and then invited them to apply for the $5,000. Then they visited each organization and ... lest their application get disqualified ... the executive director had to be there to host the kids.

Patsy Smullin: “I’ve done site visits for foundation boards that I’ve served on and I would put them up against any group of adults.”

Smullin says children tend to press for relevant answers.

Patsy Smullin: “They ask very specific questions, and the executive directors are held accountable.  It’s an incredible process to watch.”

Michelle Wilson with the Children’s Advocacy Center of Jackson County says C-101’s philanthropy training teaches children they not only have power in their community, but also future responsibilities.

Michelle Wilson: “I always tell the kids, ‘It’s great to watch you. Remember you can do a whole lot and one day you’re going to replace us and we’re counting on you to do that.’” 

By this spring, what seemed like a lot of money when school started grew thin as Dawson’s C-101 team reviewed the applications. Earlier this month, in a scene that plays out in schools across Oregon, the C-101 team awarded six local non-profits grants ranging from $500 to $1,250.

That way, Patsy Smullin didn’t have to make that decision.

Patsy Smullin: “There’s nothing like talking about philanthropy with a third grader and, believe me, they know what philanthropy means. I didn’t when I was in third grade. I’ll bet you didn’t. But they do.”