Kids Helping Kids Improve Southern Indiana

Kids helping kids – it is the goal of every parent and school system across the United States.

“Helping others” teaches children that they have a sense of connection with other people. Studies have shown that successful peer helping not only plays a major role in children’s development stages, but it also helps properly meet their adolescent needs.

But in our modern era of technology, it is easier than ever for kids to immerse themselves in virtual realities. Over time, this can lead to increased isolation, which could eventually impede their social skills.

That is part of the reason why two local groups run primarily by high school-aged students – Miles for Merry Miracles and the Community Foundation of Southern Indiana’s Youth Philanthropy Council – have made it their mission to help give back to their communities – and each other – in their own unique ways.

Helping Your Fellow Student

While Miles for Merry Miracles (M4MM) and the Community Foundation of Southern Indiana’s Youth Philanthropy Council (YPC) might not seem all that similar on the surface, their mission statements feel intertwined.

Miles for Merry Miracles, which is based out of Greenville, IN, has been supporting youth development since 2008. With a mission of improving and enhancing the communities through youth development and wellness initiatives, M4MM focuses on engaging, educating, elevating, and serving Southern Indiana youth.

“The mission of Miles for Merry Miracles is three-fold,” says Beckham Watts, the organization’s co-President and senior at St. Xavier High School in Louisville. “First, we want to engage with the community and educate both the youth and policymakers about current issues in our community. Next, we want to elevate the conditions of the people we are serving. And finally, we want to get the youth of our area to learn valuable life lessons from community service, which includes kindness, empathy, heart to serve, and compassion.”

Similar in nature, the Youth Philanthropy Council is designed to encourage youth to not only give and serve in their communities now, but to also make philanthropy a habit for future generations.

YPC members discussing grantmaking

Created at the turn of the century by generous donations from the Paul Ogle Foundation and Cinergy Foundation – which created permanent endowments to support the youth-led work in Clark, Floyd, and Harrison counties – the YPC program invites students from local public and private high schools to play a leading role in grantmaking. Members not only learn about the history of philanthropy and its impact on our society through the years, but they also run their own competitive grant cycle, awarding and allocating funds with the help of local adult mentors.

The student-led group has been awarding annual grants since 2002, specifically to nonprofits in the Southern Indiana region that focus on youth-related activities. In its more than two decades of giving, YPC has awarded grants totaling $160,000 to 296 nonprofit organizations.

“The YPC grant cycle is a way for the Foundation to help young people develop the skills to evaluate projects worthy of investment and to help them learn to be good stewards of funds,” says Crystal Gunther, Vice President of Community Philanthropy at CFSI. “Equally important, it aids the nonprofits in our community supporting youth and youth-related programs.”

Since 2002, nearly 400 high school students from all high schools in Clark and Floyd Counties have participated in the YPC.

With two similar organizations serving the same communities, it was only natural for the programs to eventually establish a working relationship. And in 2011, just three years after M4MM’s inception, the duo finally got the opportunity to have their work cross paths thanks to a $1,000 grant opportunity.

The Moving Pieces Behind the Scenes

Each January, the YPC opens its grant application to any area nonprofit that has a youth-related activity, program, or project that benefits Clark and Floyd County youth. The project must meet one of these youth-specific requirements:

  • Promote healthy development and a safe environment
  • Provide opportunities to benefit the community
  • Develop the skills of young people
  • Develop positive relationships between youth and adults

Once the application window closes on Jan. 31, YPC members get to work. During the group’s February meeting, students are assigned to groups based on the school they attend, with an adult mentor helping to guide them through the evaluation process.

YPC group working with adult mentor

“Having the adult mentors is such a key resource for our members because they are able to review the applications with them and use their experience to guide through the evaluation process,” says Margaret Brinkworth, CFSI Program Associate. “Then, they let the kids go to work. Some years, members will contact the organization’s Director with specific grant-related questions. Others have chosen to do an actual site visit to learn more about the scope of the project and how many people it can serve. But the young people are the ones taking the initiative to do their research to help validate the need in the application.”

After a month of working in their groups to evaluate the assigned applications, each group uses the last official YPC meeting of the year to make a presentation on their assigned grant applications, highlighting important details for the other YPC members to consider. Once the presentation portion of the evaluation process is completed, allocations of available funds are then made and grantees are selected.

This process provides opportunities for the council members to develop their communication, presentation, and leadership skills. It provides opportunities for them to work with others, both peers and adults, to accomplish something meaningful and impactful. Many of these youth build and develop friendships that they wouldn’t have necessarily had if they didn’t participate in the YPC program.

Establishing a Bond Over Service

Miles for Merry Miracles live on-air with WAVE-TV’s Dawn Gee

After initially hearing about the YPC grant program, Miles for Merry Miracles discovered one of their projects met the YPC grant program criteria and applied for a grant in 2011. The funding, they hoped, would improve their program, which encouraged youth to participate in service projects for families in need during the holiday season. This included a partnership with the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree to provide gifts and food for Angel Tree children.

The organization was eventually selected as a YPC grant recipient and awarded a $1,000 grant for their project.

“The money we received from the grant was used to fund our biggest project, the Angel Tree Shopping Day, which happens in early December,” Watts says. “Working with the Salvation Army, our student volunteers were able to provide clothes and Christmas presents for 386 Angels in 2022 and more than 2,000 since we started! The Angels that we bought clothes for were in underserved communities and financially at risk, so we were proud that we could take some of the stress off the parents by purchasing children’s clothes for the Christmas season.”

More than 12 years after their paths initial crossed, Miles for Merry Miracles and the Youth Philanthropy Council are still making a difference in the community. Since 2011, YPC has awarded the organization 16 grants worth more than $22,000. In typical philanthropic fashion, M4MM has been diligently putting all the funding they have received to good use – which, in turn, is giving their program a boost for future members.

“All of the money raised or donated goes straight to Miles,” says Hailey Barrett, the organization’s other co-President and senior at Floyd Central High School. “We are a nonprofit, so we don’t get a lot of donations, but any that we do get is very useful. We normally use our donations for supplies that we might need in the future, such as tables, U-Hauls, and decorations. We want the volunteers and the families that we help to have the best experience possible when working with us.”

And to have the best experience possible, Watts argues, Miles for Merry Miracles must continue to lean on local partners like the Community Foundation of Southern Indiana for support.

“It is important to us that we have so many community partners because it shows that our local organizations truly believe in what we stand for, and they want to play a part in helping us out. Every little thing that they do for us goes a long way, and we couldn’t pull off the extraordinary events that we do without the support of our community.”

M4MM growing project with Hope Southern Indiana

As for Teresa Hebert, who oversees the Miles for Merry Miracles organization, she has relished watching current and former members flourish in philanthropy all over the state.

“Without a doubt, one of my biggest joys in working with the youth over the last 15 years has been seeing the amazing metamorphosis the youth leaders experience as they progress through our nonprofit,” Hebert says. “I’ve seen them get through high school, go on to college, enter their careers, and start their families. Some of our earlier youth leaders are now doctors, parents, and leaders in the churches, communities, and professions. It has been a real thrill watching them grow.”

Thanks to a student-led partnership built around philanthropy, both the Miles for Merry Miracles and the Youth Philanthropy Council have provided an outlet for students to give back to the communities they call home.

“We try to get the youth involved because they need to know that they can make a difference,” Barrett says. “If we don’t educate those kids younger than us, then I think we would see way less community outreach. But also, kids talk to each other. If one teen says they are having fun doing service projects that help the community, it could encourage the people that they are spending time with to do the same. Getting youth involved is so important because ultimately, it will only help out the community more in the long run.”

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