NexGenLife December 21, 2020

Your High Schooler is a Philanthropist

How WOW is cultivating generosity

Did you know that your high schooler is a philanthropist and that your children are leading a generosity movement in the Wood River Valley? This fact is the best kept secret from adults, but all the kids are in the know, and it is time that you were too! Meet ‘WOW: The Generosity Project.’

Wow engages K-12 students in generosity and philanthropy by connecting students, teachers and non-profits in meaningful projects. Projects range from raking leaves, clearing trails, and writing library book reviews, to running a Paralympic School Day, creating musical performances for senior citizens and making a “Buddy Bench” on the playground to promote kindness and friendship.

How does it work? Participating organizations propose projects, and students and teachers select one to which they dedicate their “time, talent, and treasure,” according to WOW. Immersed in these three key concepts of philanthropy, kids learn that generosity is not just about money but also about their time and actions. They learn that their voice and skill sets count no matter their age or socio-economic background. Generosity “is as simple as opening the door or offering to carry someone’s groceries,” says staff member Elizabeth Herrick. While WOW donates $25 on behalf of every child to the non-profit with which the group works, the financial award comes last – icing on the cake. Financially, WOW is sustained by a small group of devoted investors from the community who believe in paying it forward and teaching the next generation how to be generous philanthropists.

Teaching youth philanthropy is not new, but WOW is unique in that it is the only organization in the country working with every school and all grades in a community. Founded by Morley Golden in 2009 to cultivate “community through generosity” (WOW’s tagline), the stats are impressive. Over the last ten years, WOW has engaged approximately 2,000 students per year who have partnered with 50 local non-profits, invested 60,000 hours in community service projects and directed $500,000 to Blaine County non-profits. This model allows students to experience various non-profits’ missions and activities of generosity during their K-8 years and prepares them to take on a significant leadership role with the Youth Philanthropy Initiative by high school.

The Youth Philanthropy Initiative (YPI) provides high school students “ownership and responsibility” in shaping and supporting their community through philanthropic giving, says Herrick, by allowing them to oversee the distribution of $15,000 each year. Supported by a teacher, students from each high school form YPI groups and, according to WOW: “vet grant applications, review finalists, and determine who receives grant awards” over a six-week period. The students review up to fifteen grant applications and create their own questions for the finalists they interview in person. Each YPI group ultimately awards three grants between $500 and $5,000 in a culminating ceremony in which the students speak to why they chose specific projects in front of the teachers, parents, and non-profits.

Giving money away may sound easy, but the students learn how difficult it can be to allocate money strategically. “Why can’t we give money to everybody?” deliberates Bridgette from Sun Valley Community School. Lila of the Sage School reiterates the challenge of making decisions when there are so many incredible non-profits in the Wood River Valley, saying, “We realize that there is no wrong choice. Every organization that we can give money to would be the right choice. It’s a wonderful thing to know that your community is filled with so many organizations that want to help.”

Because the students are in charge, they are forced to critically consider the needs of the community and examine “effective strategies for change,” according to WOW. Their reflections speak to the power of the YPI experience as a catalyst for personal growth. Lydia from Wood River High School stated: “I felt that it gave me a voice and that I could make an impact on where our money goes in our community.” Ali from Sun Valley Community School shared that “YPI was a place for me to voice my own opinions and educate myself about the non-profits in our valley.” Finally Bridgette highlighted how it strengthened her self-worth by showing her “that I can make an impact on someone’s life, which is very inspiring for me.”

Despite COVID-19 and the challenges of varying school schedules, YPI is still in full-swing and will be conducted remotely over Zoom where needed. While other aspects of WOW’s programming are limited due to COVID-19, some teachers and students are still putting generosity in action. For example, an art teacher at Ernest Hemingway STEAM School in Ketchum and her students are creating puzzles for senior citizens living in isolation. The children are learning that their time and talents are bringing joy to other’s lives, even when it feels hard to give away their precious artwork.

Are you ready to get involved? Start by asking your children or your friend’s children about their experience spreading generosity in the Wood River Valley. The youth are the foundation of this philanthropic generosity movement that ultimately seeks to engage not only the Valley’s students, teachers and non-profits, but also parents, adults and businesses. Let the benevolent wild rumpus start!

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.