A very wise nine-year-old once told me, “It doesn’t matter how old or how young you are; everyone can make a difference.”
And she’s right. It doesn’t matter.
But sometimes we “grown-ups” don’t remember that. Well-meaning adults and community organizations often go to great lengths to try to figure out what young people care about and want for their communities. But very few youth involvement efforts provide meaningful, hands-on opportunities for community engagement.
The astute nine-year-old imparted this sage advice after she participated in the Youth Philanthropy Contest in Norfolk. Her third-grade class did a group project, Bears of Care. They stuffed and sewed teddy bears, attached hand-written notes of cheer, and distributed them to people in nursing homes and hospitals. Her observation came during a conversation in which I asked her what she had learned. Because the contest gave her a chance to serve others, she learned that even someone her age can make a difference.
The Youth Philanthropy Contest asks youth from kindergarten through age 25 how they want to make a difference in their own backyards and then provides a hands-on way for them to do it. Participants have a chance to use their creativity, compassion, and love of community to make things better. As a result, almost $150,000 worth of youth-created charitable work has been done in the last eight years by hundreds of young people.
To make sure this experience isn’t superficially engaging youth without really believing they can make a difference, the contest awards 10, $1000 prizes to the “best” projects. Funding and support at this level ensure this is more than just an exercise in collecting creative ideas; and that participants can implement things that have a meaningful impact. A thousand dollars is also enough to get kids’ attention, encourage them to participate, and give them room to dream. The Youth Philanthropy Contest teaches them they have the power to make a difference.
The contest has minimal guidance about projects so that youth have more freedom to learn. Projects must have a positive impact on the community, be charitable, and involve youth in the actual project work. Beyond that, the sky’s the limit.
The Youth Philanthropy Contest has also inspired adults to remember why it is important to be involved. Because the contest often has more projects than there are funds to support them, people have stepped up to fill the gap. Community members excited to see young people giving back fund additional projects. This funding engages and connects community members to other giving opportunities and offers budding youth philanthropists a chance to interact with more seasoned adult philanthropists and caring community members, inspiring and energizing them all.
Through the contest, youth experience the joy of giving back while they are young, planting the seeds for future giving and engagement. A youth-focused opportunity like this creates a community paradigm shift from one of self to one of community, starting with the youngest residents. Young people have amazing ideas and generous hearts, but sometimes they need just someone to ask them what they think and support their ideas and efforts.
Communities interested in creating a robust and thriving future must find meaningful ways to engage their youth. These authentic experiences are an investment in the future that forges connections and builds the skills necessary to participate in society. These opportunities challenge youth to think about what they care about and how they might make things better. It says to them; we want to hear what you think, what you care about, and what could be improved here.
Young people will eventually grow up, as we all must. But when they do, we want them to remember that their community supported their ideas and invested in them at a young age. We want to inspire them to use their leadership, critical thinking skills, and voice to make a difference in our communities. Whether they stay in their hometown, move back as adults, or find themselves in another community, they will become the next generation of leaders, elected officials, business executives, and volunteers who guide us into the future.
Everyone can make a difference; it’s in our best interest to help them figure out how.
Tammy Day of Norfolk and her husband Brandon own and operate Daycos Inc. Tammy’s work focuses on Daycos4Good, which uses the business as a force for good in the world. She is a member of the Norfolk Public Schools Board of Education. For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.