How would 21 teens better Cleveland with $25,000? United Way gave them a chance to find out.

During a recent afternoon ceremony at the Halle Building, the mood was celebratory and inspiring as five local organizations—Boys & Girls Club of Greater ClevelandHanna Perkins Center for Child Development, Footpath FoundationCleveland Rape Crisis Center, and the YMCA of Greater Cleveland—received $5,000 grants in support of youth-geared initiatives.

Even cooler? The benefactors are ambitious, civic-minded high school juniors and seniors who spent nine months serving on United Way of Greater Cleveland's John K. Mott Youth Fund Distribution Committee (YFDC).


Held on May 8, the event doubled as a graduation ceremony for YFDC's 21 members, who attend schools across Northeast Ohio. Once a month, the students met for two hours at the United Way's downtown Cleveland offices, learning what the organization does and how it distributes funds, as well as challenges facing the region.


"It's our way to get the youth involved in the work of solving poverty, of understanding the needs of the community, and being part of a solution around that," says Nancy Mendez, vice president of community impact at United Way of Greater Cleveland.

<span class="content-image-text">Timothy Huang, a senior from Solon High School, reads through a request for funding from several agencies in the Greater Cleveland area</span>Timothy Huang, a senior from Solon High School, reads through a request for funding from several agencies in the Greater Cleveland areaCall it a comeback


The YFDC program was on hiatus for a few years, but was reestablished at the start of the 2017-2018 school year. For United Way of Greater Cleveland president and CEO August Napoli, bringing the program back was important "because this is the future," he says. "The fact is, we all have a responsibility during our time to step up and to lead. And preparing the next generation is exactly what we should be doing."


That the YFDC program also introduces students to the concept and impact of philanthropy, as well as what he calls "the power we have as an individual," is also vital. "We all have it within us as human beings, that philanthropic spirit," he says. "Everyone wants to offer a helping hand, and everyone can do that—either through their gifts of money, time, or talent. It makes a difference. If everybody did it, the power of that is just enormous."


The idea that individuals can pool their unique perspectives and resources and collectively make a difference underscores the YFDC's work. According to Courtney Robinson, United Way of Greater Cleveland's manager of community impact, the students were first tasked with determining priority areas for funding. After some deliberation, the committee chose to focus on agencies with initiatives focused on after-school and mentoring programs, mental health programs, and violence prevention.


"Mental health was really their top area of focus their funding on, because they said that they saw a lot of mental health issues going on in [their] schools and not a lot was being done to address that," she says. "That was something they were really passionate about funding."


The United Way then sent out RFPs to agencies, receiving an impressive 26 back in response. The YFDC participants read and scored these proposals, just as the organization's adult employees might do, and narrowed the field down to six agency finalists, who were brought in for interviews and presentations. The students took this work very seriously, and approached choosing the eventual grantees with great care.

During the ceremony, Robinson spoke and commended the committee's "hard-hitting questions" toward finalists, and praised how "diligent" the students were as stewards of the funds.


"That's one of the things that I love so much about working with youth: They don't look at it from the personal aspect—they take themselves out of it and focus on the community and how these dollars are going to affect everyone," she said later. "They were really focused on, 'Is this mission aligned with what our priority areas are, and is this going to have the greatest effect?'"

<span class="content-image-text">YFDC participants visited the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland and lent a hand in some gardening and weeding to beautify their space in Cleveland’s Slavic Village</span>YFDC participants visited the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland and lent a hand in some gardening and weeding to beautify their space in Cleveland’s Slavic VillageMaking a tangible impact


The initiatives funded by YFDC are making a difference in the community. The CLUB Crops program of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Cleveland in Slavic Village pays teens to tend a greenhouse full of vegetables, herbs, and other crops, and then sell what they harvest to farmer's markets, farmers, and other businesses. The YMCA of Greater Cleveland's Tiger Café is an after-school program at the Warrensville Heights branch that helps middle and high school students develop leadership skills.


Other grantees include the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center's prevention education program geared to middle school, high school, and college students, and the Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development's anti-bullying program for preschool students. The funds disbursed to the Footpath Foundation, meanwhile, will allow the organization to provide supplies for participants in its youth summer camp program (such as a sleeping bag and toiletries).


"Some agencies who are smaller—like Footpath, for example—don't necessarily receive regular funding from United Way," Robinson says. "This was an opportunity for those smaller organizations to receive those little small grants that are really beneficial when they have a smaller budget. That $5,000 goes a long way."


For Solon High School junior Wenzhao Qiu, participating in YFDC and getting to see that her work makes a difference is deeply empowering. "I look around me all the time and see [people saying], 'Oh, I would love to help, but I can't,'" she says. "This program has given me a means to do [just that]."


The ceremony ended with Robinson giving each student in attendance a certificate, and sharing personal anecdotes about their strengths and what they brought to the program. Although some of the teens seemed bashful to hear the public praise, the impact YFDC had on them—and, by extension, the community—was unmistakable.


"They have great talents and knowledge that we don't really tap into," Robinson said later, describing the teen committee members. "I love giving them opportunities to see, 'You can do it—you can use your voice. You can do it now.'"


The United Way of Greater Cleveland will start recruiting for the next John K. Mott Youth Fund Distribution Committee cohort during the early part of the 2019-2020 school year. For more information, reach out to Courtney Robinson at or 216-436-2122, or via the United Way's social media channels and website.

This article is the first installment in our ongoing "Roots of Change: Forging a More United Way" dedicated series in partnership with United Way of Greater Cleveland.