Howard teen-agers learn art of giving


Scott Chahanovich's friends are astonished when the 16-year-old tells them what he does in his spare time. He's a philanthropist.

Chahanovich and 14 other Howard County teens sit on a council charged with doling out $30,000 in grants.

"Do you actually handle this money?" Chahanovich says his friends ask. He proudly tells them, "Yes, I get to give it away. I'm in charge."

This project reflects an emerging national trend to engage teen-agers in philanthropy.

"We, being the future of Howard County, know a little bit more -- we know what we think will best improve the community in the future," said Chahanovich of Ellicott City. "We can see a little bit further, we can see where we're going."

The grant money is from the general endowment fund of the nonprofit Horizon Foundation, Howard County's largest philanthropic organization, which promotes health among the county's residents. The foundation modeled the council after youth programs sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Michigan and the Eli Lilly and Company Foundation in Indiana.

Richard M. Krieg, Horizon Foundation's president and chief executive officer, said he has not discovered any similar youth councils in the state but hopes the concept will catch on in the Baltimore-Washington area.

He said the foundation wanted to give teens an opportunity to see themselves in a positive role. A side benefit, he said, is that the students can advise the foundation about health issues affecting teen-agers, such as substance abuse, violence and mental health.

"This is an additional tool that the Horizon Foundation can use to examine community problems and come up with innovative solutions," Krieg said.

Chahanovich and the other members of the foundation's Youth Action Council are poring over 15 grant applications -- three times the number they expected -- proposing programs that are youth-driven. Some are also youth-initiated.

The council plans to announce grant recipients next month, with each possibly receiving $2,000 to $3,000.

"I was thoroughly impressed at the ability of these people who want to make these organizations and want to make them work and want to improve the county," Chahanovich said of the applicants.

The teens pounded the pavement to tell the county about the grants and accepted applications from mid-September through Nov. 2. They gave applications to organizations they thought might benefit the community -- such as schools and churches -- and encouraged them to apply.

Last month, the council held a grant-writing workshop to teach students how to draft and assess their grant applications.

The proposals had to be sponsored by a nonprofit organization or a public agency, such as a school or service club, that would take legal and financial responsibility for the project. Kathleen Sheedy, a Horizon employee and the council's adult coordinator, said a student could propose, for example, that a school chess club teach the game to elementary schoolchildren.

Council member Shengping Yu, 16, said one of the issues the group is taking into account while reviewing the proposals is a common teen complaint that there are not enough after-school activities that could possibly prevent drug and alcohol abuse. The Columbia resident said an advantage of having a council composed entirely of teen-agers is that they know teens' concerns.

"Right now, a lot of the programs that help teens are sponsored and run by adults," said Yu, a senior at River Hill High School. "Although the adults do a good job for the programs, they don't understand a teen's point of view, so it's good to have a group of teens to assess what teens want."

Sheedy said the Horizon Foundation will consider the issues raised in the grant proposals while developing future programs.

She said the youth council is unique because the teens don't have to worry about raising the money.

"We want the students to focus on the programming and not the fund raising," she said.

Grant recipients recommended by the council have to be approved by the foundation, but Krieg said he doesn't foresee problems or conflicts.

"We really intend to back them up," he said. "We are really serious about this."

The teen-agers trained during the summer, including a two-day retreat during which they wrote and discussed grant applications. They now meet once or twice a week and also work at home.

The foundation recruited the students from youth leadership groups, schools, nonprofit organizations and churches. Chahanovich's youth group leader steered him to the council, for which he works about seven to 11 hours a week. He also is working to become an Eagle Scout and is in the German Club at Mount Hebron High School, where he is a sophomore.

He said the sacrifice of time is minimal when he considers the opportunity to help improve the county.

"We want to bring health and wellness to the community; you rarely get chances like that," he said. "You rarely have people state to youth, 'We want to improve where you live, we want to improve the future.'"

After this year's pilot program, the foundation will evaluate the council and its organizational structure. In March, the foundation expects to recruit for next year's council, which Krieg hopes will sustain the seriousness and concern for social issues that he sees in this group of teens.

"Sometimes people think of teen-agers and they think of problems, but they really don't understand that they can be quite motivated and quite adept to problem solving," he said. "I've been very impressed by [the council's] ability to digest the facts and come up with solutions. Young people should be thought of as part of the solution, not part of the problem."

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