Harvesting Pennies, Sowing Change

Daniel de Zeeuw
December 20, 2004

As a high school senior I am well aware that my voice can be seen as more of an annoyance than a product for change. But I am also aware of those few people who believe a youth voice is one of the most important elements of a hopeful future. Everyone who works at Common Cents believes this to be true. This is why I continue to volunteer on Common Cents’ SCAF Council. What began three years ago as a community service requirement for graduation has turned into one of the best uses of my time, my effort and my voice.

Learn more about Common Cents.

Common Cents is a non-profit organization based on turning youth into community activists and good citizens, centered around a Penny Harvest in which students raise pennies to fund community grants and service projects. To explain my impression of Common Cents I should simply repeat the phrase that I often tell my friends who want to know why I’m always busy after school or on the weekend: last year Common Cents raised $523,307 and every cent was raised and allocated by New York City students, all under the age of 18.

A Model for Other Programs
In my view, Common Cents operates the way all youth serving organizations should operate. They give youth a chance to help raise money for projects to help others. They make sure youth are involved in implementing these projects. And, they give young people a voice in how the program should be run by having youth board members and the SCAF Council. All of Common Cents is geared towards empowering youth who want to help improve their community, their city and their world.

Common Cents begins with the Penny Harvest, a monumental effort across New York City where students from over 700 schools “harvest” pennies from their neighborhoods. Students go door-to-door, ask local stores to help and do whatever they can to collect tons of pennies. Schools that collect 25 sacks of pennies set up Roundtables with a budget of about $1,000. Through the Roundtables, students can then choose an issue (s) in their community they believe to be important, and then allocate the $1,000 to address the community need through philanthropy and service projects.

The money that remains after all of the Roundtables have allocated funds is turned over to the Student Committee Action Fund (SCAF) Council. That is where I come in. I am the chair of the SCAF Council, a diverse group of 15 New York City high school students given the task of distributing a portion of the Penny Harvest funds to best serve the city and the students that collected it. We do this in two key ways: through Service Action Grants and through the annual Global Relief Conference.

Acting Locally, And Globally
All Penny Harvest participating schools can apply to SCAF for a Student Action Grant. Students apply for grants, usually for about $500, to carry out student-led service projects. Last year we funded 135 service projects ranging from planting community gardens to performing educational plays, starting after-school tutoring sessions and making gift baskets for the homeless.

The Global Relief Conference is based on the Common Cents belief that the change youth inspires does not have to stop at their doorstep. Many Student Roundtables allocate portions of their budgets to SCAF to work on global issues. Starting in the fall, the council researches a pressing issue that members believe to be globally important – last year it was AIDS education in the Caribbean – and that we would like to bring to the attention to youth that wish to make a difference.

We invite a small number of organizations who concentrate on that issue to present to an audience of about one hundred students at the United Nations. The students then break into groups, discuss the various organization’s merits and programs, and decide how to allocate a portion of funds anyway they choose. They can give all the money to one organization or split it up among each of them. I love to sit back with the SCAF Council and watch others get the chance to do the job we enjoy so much.

Special Projects
The SCAF Council also works with the Board and Common Cents staff on special grants initiatives. For example, we have just completed a Post-9/11 Grant Initiative where the Council distributed $180,000 available from the Twin Towers Penny Harvest Fund collected in 2001. This initiative began this summer when the Common Cents Board passed a resolution to allocate remaining 2001 Penny Harvest funds and asked SCAF to play the leading role in this process.

First, we researched post 9/11 issues and then agreed to try to address the issue of education and tolerance for youth affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We then proceeded to write a RFP (Request for Proposal) and made it available to organizations all over the city. After about 70 organizations applied for grants each ranging from $5,000 to $30,000, we began the long process of finding the few projects that we wished to fund. After a hard month of intense deliberation, the Council has recently agreed to fund nine organizations that we believe have innovative and effective projects devoted to helping youth affected by 9/11.

Every year SCAF Council begins with new members who at first remain quiet and have to be coaxed into sharing their opinion. Our advisors help us immensely in reminding these kids as well as all of us on the Council that we have to speak and be heard, because Common Cents requires it. Many a time we have come to a heated debate or a tough decision and have looked at our facilitators for advice. While sometimes they sneak in an opinion, more often than not they tell us, “What are you looking at us for? You guys have to decide this.” There is always a supreme annoyance when any question to them of “What do you think?” is gracefully returned with a “Well, what do you think?” They serve as an excellent bridge between the SCAF Council and the rest of the organization, but they also never fail to make sure that by the end of the year every member who began quiet and subdued is sharing their opinion and making their voice heard.

As I go on to college and beyond, there will be many things from high school I will forget, but the work I have done at Common Cents and the influence I have had with SCAF Council will always be something I remember.

Daniel de Zeeuw was the 2003-2004 chair of Common Cents’ Student Community Action Fund. This story was adapted from a piece published by the National Youth Leadership Council in May, 2004.

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