Penny Ante Program Makes Cents

Joe Volz
March 1, 1998

While Jim Hayes, former Fortune Magazine publisher, was raising $1 million from major foundations and corporations for his New York-based “New American Revolution” project to aid disadvantaged youth, another New York fundraiser, Teddy Gross, was collecting his million over the last seven years the hard way — penny-by-penny-by-penny.

But there was another big difference in the two programs. Hayes’ high-powered plan to send a train across the country to publicize the need to help youth programs, never left the station. The kids didn’t get a penny. But Gross’s program, called Common Cents, because the youth who were the fundraisers just asked for pennies, is a success. Of the $285,000 collected by Common Cents last year, most went to the needy. And the youth who gathered the money decided who got it.

The story of Common Cents is a lesson in common sense, one man’s dream of helping on a small scale.

Gross told YOUTH TODAY that seven years ago, “I was a new father and my three-and-a- half-year-old daughter wanted me to take a homeless man home. He needed clothes and warmth. I suddenly felt very inadequate. It wasn’t what I could do for the homeless person. It was really more for my daughter and me. Shortly after that, I noticed a drawer of pennies in a neighbor’s apartment and asked if she would give them to the homeless. She threw them at me. Before we knew it, we were in the penny business. We had to borrow station wagons and hand trucks to cart them away. We didn’t realize what hit us.” Each fall, Penny Harvest is held to “recycle the wasted resource of idle pennies.” In the last few years, the collection program has gone from students in 50 schools to 460 schools.

After collecting the pennies, the kids then sit down and decide what senior center, day care center or homeless shelter should receive the money.

“We make very small grants,” says Gross. “The kids went to a homeless center and saw that people were sleeping on pallets. So they made a grant of $50 for mattresses. The kids know the value of a dollar. They don’t want to waste money.”

Common Cents also runs “Cookies and Dreams,” a literacy and mentoring program. Each older student tutors a pre-schooler in reading. It is currently running in several public schools as part of the curriculum and as an after-school program at a private Manhattan school where privileged middle schoolers are paired with pre-school children from a transitional shelter.

Ironically, the fact Common Cents thinks small, hampers it from getting big foundation grants like Hayes received at the New American Revolution.

“We hear from foundations that we are too small,” says Gross. “Micro grants are impossible. For a foundation to give a $230 grant, it would cost more than the grant. We’re told that when we get bigger, give them a call.”

Common Sense has just been named by the Points of Light Foundation, as the kind of community activity which effectively engages volunteers to help better the lives of young people. Points of Light was started by President Bush and has been endorsed by President Clinton.

Volz, Joe. "Penny Ante Program Makes Cents." Youth Today, March/April 1998, p. 9.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.