Pay It Forward project gives Boise youth opportunity to invest in others.
At a December 2006 meeting of the Coming of Age class of the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (BUUF) in Idaho, she fanned a crisp stack of brand new $100 bills before the 17 youth and their mentors.
“They didn’t think the money was real at first,” said Thrall-Thomas. “When they realized it was real money, they were very excited.”
That night was the start of the Boise congregation’s “Pay It Forward Challenge” for the 12- and 13-year-olds in their Coming of Age class.
“Pay It Forward” is an increasingly popular term referring to the practice of helping a person who will repay it by helping someone else. It’s the name of a feature film, based on the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. And in 2006, Oprah Winfrey popularized the concept by giving more than 300 people in her audience $1,000 and challenging them to come up with inspiring and creative ways to help others.
Before Thrall-Thomas had shown them the $100 bills, the 17 youth and their mentors had been brainstorming about what they would do if they had $100 to make the world a better place. An anonymous donor had given the church $1,700 to fund a service project for the youth, and Thrall-Thomas then devised the Pay It Forward Challenge.
Before the youth left that night, they each signed a covenant, along with their mentor, to use the money to help others within 30 days and to write a 300-word essay about it. Once the youth had their plans in place and their covenants signed, they were issued their $100 bill. Most left the church that night with cash in hand.
The youth devised a wide array of projects to help people and animals both locally and internationally. “I was very pleased,” said Thrall-Thomas proudly. “They touched on just about everything.” Some donated their money directly. Others found ways to increase their initial investment before donating it to a cause. By the end of the one-month project, the original $1,700 gift had doubled to $3,475.
Two youth and their mentors paired up with Salvation Army bell ringers and challenged passersby on a Saturday before Christmas that if they donated to the Salvation Army kettle, the youth would match their gifts. Within an hour, shoppers had put $200 in the kettle, and the youth had added their $100 gifts to match that. Coming of Age student Brad Schaff wrote, “The Salvation Army will do something good for many that will create a chain of people doing kindly things for one another. This chain was not created by us. It was started by a gracious donor who was kind to us.”
Mentor Jim Lyons said, “In addition to being a lot of fun and a good way to increase the Salvation Army’s contributions, it was a good way to spread the word that BUUF is a caring and giving organization with some very dedicated youth members.”
One student, who had been adopted from China, chose to donate to international children’s foundations. She forwarded her money to Half the Sky, which builds infant and preschool programs at orphanages in China, and to the International Children’s Surgical Foundation. In her essay, Jade Nissl wrote, “I have everything I need in life—more than I started with as an infant in China. I want to help other children in need with the donations so they may suffer less and have more joy in their hearts.”
Other students supported environmental groups. One donated to the Village Bicycle Project of the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute, which takes used bicycle parts and tools to Africa to help people build and maintain bikes. Another contributed to the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, which helps preserve rainforests in Mexico.
Two students paired together to create a “Giving Tree” to solicit donations from church members and friends. The tree helped them almost triple the $200 they started with to $570 in donations. The students divided the money among the Make a Wish Foundation, the Idaho Food Bank, the Women’s and Children’s Alliance, and the Nature Conservancy.
Another pair of students solicited donations for school music programs. One teamed with her mentor to make and sell mosaics, raising $245 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. And four youth chose to support animal-related causes, raising money and donating food and supplies to the Humane Society. “By helping the Humane Society, all those animals will go to families who love them,” wrote Jade Duffy. “It’s a chain reaction; you get helped, then you help someone else, and so on.”
The church member who donated the money has elected to remain anonymous. “The person didn’t want to muddy the waters, and didn’t want to take any personal credit for what kids and mentors are doing,” said the Rev. Elizabeth L. Greene, the fellowship’s minister.
Although the donation was a one-year gift, Thrall-Thomas and Greene are hoping to continue the program in their every-other-year Coming of Age class. In the future, they will probably solicit funds from church members so they can provide each youth with the seed money for a service project.
“It was more successful than we even could have hoped because of how enthusiastic and excited and joyful the youth are about it,” said Greene. “I think that the kids took away a wonderful sense of the joy of generosity, the joy of making a difference in the lives of people who aren’t part of their world. And it made the congregation stop and think themselves about what role joyous generosity has in their lives.”
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).