SOUTH PORTLAND — Fifth-graders at Mahoney Middle School are getting a firsthand lesson in philanthropy, thanks to a new statewide initiative.
Jumpstart Our Youth was launched in September by the Unity Foundation, UniTel, Maine Community Foundation and Jobs for Maine Graduates. JOY gives students in 50 schools throughout the state a $1,000 grant to donate to a nonprofit organization of their choice.
JOY’s goal is to teach students an appreciation of how nonprofit groups meet community needs and teach them skills in critical evaluation, collaboration, finance and operations as they determine how to award their grants.
South Portland High School and Memorial Middle School are also participating.
At Mahoney Middle School, about 30 Project Reach students are in the process of listening to presentations from five nonprofit groups, which were chosen by the students.
Teacher Jeff Kozaka said his students were at first overwhelmed by the number of nonprofits in the Portland area. The library media specialist, however, helped the students refine their Internet searches to only those that helped children between the ages of 9 and 17.
Kozaka said students narrowed down the list of 150 groups to a dozen and, after further research and discussion, chose five groups to send a request for proposals, which the students drafted themselves.
The students then called the executive directors of the groups to tell them they were being considered to receive a $1,000 grant.
“They made all the calls,” Kozaka said. “It’s really up to them. I don’t get a vote.”
The students are considering awarding their grant to either the Center for Grieving Children, the South Portland Food Cupboard, Youth Alternatives Ingraham, the Portland skateboard park or a Massachusetts-based cancer clinic.
Kozaka admitted the student-led process could be frustrating at times, especially when an initial poll indicated students would likely choose the skatepark to receive the funds.
But once students researched the other groups, and the ethical and practical implications of giving to each one, the skatepark became the least likely recipient.
On Tuesday, students listened intently to a presentation from Sybil Riemensnider, the director of the South Portland Food Cupboard. She told students that many families are struggling to pay for food, because more people are losing their jobs.
The Food Cupboard, founded in 1997, operates out of the basement of the St. John the Evangelist Church, 611 Main St., surviving on donations and volunteer power. It currently serves between 50 and 75 families a week, a third with children.
“That’s a lot of families coming through our system,” Riemensnider said. “We know that’s going to increase because people are losing their jobs.”
The pantry doesn’t only give food and clothing to families in need. A liaison from the University of Southern Maine’s cooperative extension teaches families about basic nutrition and shows them how to make their food supplies last.
While the pantry has much of its food donated by Hannaford Bros., the group still spends $1,000 a month in food. Since the group has no other expenses, Riemensnider said the entire $1,000 grant will go toward food purchases, at a time when the pantry’s supplies have been depleted because of Thanksgiving and Christmas. “Come February, March and April, our shelves are bare,” she said.
Student Emilia Smith asked Riemensnider how students could help, even if they decided to donate the money to another nonprofit. Riemensnider said they could visit and volunteer at the pantry and get to know the families who go there.
“We have February vacation, so we could come in then,” Smith said. “And in April.”
Kozaka said that response was exactly the kind of ethic the program hopes to instill.
“We don’t want to just hand someone a check,” he said. “We want sweat equity.”
The grant winner will be chosen in late February, and the school will have a grant award celebration event on March 3.
Fifth-graders at Mahoney Middle School listen to a presentation by Sybil Riemensnider, right, director of the South Portland Food Cupboard.
Project REACH students in Jeff Kozaka’s fifth-grade class at Mahoney Middle School listen to a presentation by Sybil Riemensnider, right, director of the South Portland Food Cupboard.