Youth Action Committees give teens head start on philanthropy

High school clubs have come a long way since I was a teenager. Even my progressive alma mater, East Lansing High — with its artsy, cerebral, diverse options — didn’t offer me the chance to be a philanthropist.

But that’s exactly what Michigan teens in every county of our state have the chance to do today.

There are 86 groups of teen givers all over Michigan who work through community foundations to help young people in need – people they don’t even know – have access to healthy food, tutoring, arts and cultural opportunities and recreational programs.

The groups, called Youth Action Committees (YACs), got their start in the 1990s, when the W.K. Kellogg Foundation issued a challenge to Michigan community foundations: For every $2 raised for endowment funds not earmarked for a specific cause, Kellogg would give $1 to a youth endowment fund so these teens could give grant money forever.

Today, the collective assets of all 86 youth funds are nearly $40 million, and the funds provide $2.5 million to Michigan communities every year.

Each regional committee is made up of high school students committed to changing their communities through philanthropy. They learn about fund development, youth empowerment and grant-making. They volunteer with nonprofits that help other young people in their communities. About 1,900 teens serve on YACs across the state annually.

The Capital Region Community Foundation’s group has three dozen students, representing 14 high schools in Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties. These kids serve meals in shelters, volunteer at the annual Special Olympics games and work during the school year to make our community better for all kids and teens.

In 2012, our YAC awarded $41,505 to 25 nonprofits in mid-Michigan. An additional $5,000 went to 18 local elementary school classrooms; students as young as 7 wrote grants to request funds for environmental and anti-bullying projects.

When I talked with some of our members at their last meeting of the school year, I asked what they gained from their experience. One answer in particular stood out.

The Lansing senior told me her family is low-income, and she didn’t think people cared about families like hers. But through her community service – and the grants she had a hand in awarding – she saw just how much people did care. And she was proud to be a part of it.

She’ll be heading off to the University of Michigan in the fall, where she’ll work toward a degree in social work.

“Everyone can make a difference,” she said. “I know that now because of YAC.”

If you know a high school student who would be interested in participating in a youth action committee, you can learn more about them at www.youthgrantmakers.org. To find the community foundation that serves your county, go to www.forgoodforever.org. Michigan YACs are recruiting students now for next fall. Give your teen the gift of empowerment and a broader perspective.

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