Penny Harvest: A Way to Cultivate a Generation of Youth Philanthropists

If you took a peek one afternoon in a Pinehurst K-8 School classroom in Seattle, you’d notice several 3rd or 4th graders in a group talking animatedly and gesturing towards several large pieces of flipchart paper with lists of organizations and social issues on the wall.

You might overhear:

“What do you think about donating our pennies to this animal organization? I’d like to help animals.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Well, I think the money should go to help refugees.”
“How are we going to agree?”

Students discussing the issues Courtesy Debra DiDominico

These animated and passionate students are volunteering for the Penny Harvest Program, which operates under the auspices of Common Cents, a national nonprofit whose mission is to “nurture a new generation of caring and capable young people…by enabling them to strengthen their communities through philanthropy and service-learning.”

“Penny Harvest is a way to build leadership.”  D.C. grade 5

Students who participate in the program are responsible for tasks that seem quite mature and ambitious for such a young age.  These include:

  • Give class presentations, lead assemblies, and collect pennies.
  • Investigate, explore, and research local and global non-profits.
  • Facilitate philanthropy roundtables about social issues.
  • Determine as a team which organization will receive their pennies.
  • Participate in community service projects throughout the year.

I was curious about how these young people were being transformed into philanthropists, so I talked with Debra DeDominico, a teacher at Pinehurst, who is a Penny Harvest Coach.  Coaches are trained to mentor and guide a team of students in the difficult job of picking the lucky recipient of the funds.

“The children take turns chairing the meetings. And like the real world of meetings, the chairperson often becomes unglued and is required to find strategies when their fellow Penny Harvest team members are shouting, or using other methods to get their point across. The chairperson has to deal with the chaos,” explained Debra.

As the program continues, the students slowly transform into a team and are working cohesively as a group by the end of the year. Research shows that service learning opportunities get kids excited and motivated to go to school, which in turn improves attendance and academic performance.

Debra and other coaches say that the students learn:

  • Leadership, listening and teamwork skills
  • Analytical skills
  • How to make decisions as a group
  • The value of contributing to their community

“I think it’s awesome for people who need to express themselves; they can figure out who they really are.”
S.E. grade 5

I met Laura DeMarco, a fourth grader at Pinehurst, who was an enthusiastic participant of Penny Harvest.

Laura DeMarco by Lara Grauer Photography

As you can see from this picture, she has a great smile and as I would soon learn, a big heart. I was impressed by her outspoken and passionate nature.

“I like Penny Harvest because it helps people right here in the Seattle, Washington area and it also helps people around the world.”
Laura DeMarco

“Laura was a leader in all of her classes. Her leadership abilities emerged as naturally as I’ve ever witnessed in a child so young,” said Debra, who taught both Physical Education and Forum classes to Laura.

“Even as a 2nd grader, Laura would volunteer to be the chairperson in the Penny Harvest meetings.  When the meetings erupted in disagreements, she would take a breath and calmly re-establish order.  Her peers listened to her calm, rational words and appreciated the quick return to productivity.”

Laura was very fun and easy to be with and I was inspired by her breadth of knowledge about Penny Harvest and the confidence she exuded.

“Watching [the students’] transformation is fun and fills me with joy.  The students tend to be quite proud that they are representing their school and classmates with such important responsibilities. I’m inspired by watching the creativity with which these young philanthropists come to agreement,” said Debra.

Student with oodles of bags containing pennies Photo by Katie Van Etten

Looks like Penny Harvest is succeeding in creating an enthusiastic and diligent generation of youth philanthropists: in October 2011, 12,318 students from 51 schools in the Puget Sound area raised $51,450.25 and made 122 grants to community-based organizations.

 “Penny Harvest changed my life; it helps people, countries and continents and it helped me a lot”
K.W. Grade 3


This entry was posted in Inspiring Organizations, Inspiring People, Philanthropy, Youth and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Penny Harvest: A Way to Cultivate a Generation of Youth Philanthropists

  1. Karen says:

    This is incredible! I had no idea this organization even existed. I am thrilled to see this kind of teaching in schools. It’s exactly what our world needs. Fills me with hope! You should submit this story to the Seattle Times and to the King 5 “Making a Difference” program. More people need to know about this.

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