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When the Giving is Girl-Powered!

RVA Teens Make a Difference

Morgan Rhudy knows how simple multiplication can transform a community. She’s doing just that with her nonprofit.

“Girl Power Grants is a grant-making organization where a hundred girls each give $100 so we can fund a $10,000 grant annually to another organization in the Richmond area,” explained Morgan, president and a founder of Girl Power Grants (GPG). “And through our programs, we are able to give those hundred girls a unique opportunity to learn about nonprofits, and learn which ones they’re passionate about.”

Morgan, a freshman in James River High School’s Center for Leadership and International Relations, and dozens of area teens in grades six through twelve are members of the 2-year-old nonprofit, which last month awarded its second annual grant.

The finalists for this year’s grant included Gracie’s Gowns, which distributes personalized hospital gowns to children, Stay Strong Virginia, which raises awareness of eating disorders, and YoungLives Metro Richmond, which addresses teen pregnancy. At a ceremony just before press time, YoungLives Metro was named this year’s grant recipient.

Finding Ways to Help

“I’ve been searching for ways to help out in my community for a long time,” said Maggie McKenna, a freshman from Henrico who attends Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond. “It’s especially difficult as a teenager, because so many of the organizations I have an interest in have an age limit. Being able to be a part of this group that celebrates my youth is fantastic. I joined to have the opportunity to help out in my community and help other young girls like me find ways to make a difference.”

“Girls reach out and really want to help,” said Morgan. “What I’ve learned is that there are a lot of girls genuinely eager to help, and giving them a chance to help has been really exciting for me.”

Members of Girl Power Grants celebrate with the 2017 grant recipient, YoungLives Metro Richmond.

GPG is a giving circle, which means that members pool money to fund one large grant. Each member gets one vote toward the annual recipient. The GPG concept is modeled after Richmond’s Impact 100 (a women’s giving circle that gives out two $100,000 grants a year), founded by the mom of one of GPG’s founding members, Delaney Baratka. While giving circles are popular throughout the country, ones founded and run by teenagers are rare.

“My experience with GPG has been so positive,” said Delaney, a ninth grader at Atlee High School. “I have met so many great girls from across Richmond. I have also been able to meet so many leaders of nonprofit organizations and learn about
their missions and goals.”

For Delaney and many other GPG members, an interest in community service is a family thing. “I grew up in a house where Impact 100 was talked about a lot, and it was just starting to grow when I was little. I think my mom’s community mindedness has set the basis for my interest in volunteering. I am excited to grow and prosper in this area. I want to know more and continue to get more involved.”

How GPG Works

GPG members learn about many area nonprofits each year, according to Morgan. They kick off the giving season with The Big Learn, a day in November when members research and present information on a variety of organizations. From there, she said, the members vote to invite some nonprofits to apply for the grant. (Other nonprofits are eligible to apply for the grant as well, even if not formally invited).

What are they looking for in a nonprofit? “I look for an organization that has an impact in our home community and that is impacting teens’ lives dynamically, not just monetarily… [an organization] that would use our money to build or grow a project, especially one that GPG could help out with or be involved in,” explained Abigail McAllister, a student at Veritas School and member of GPG.

Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation was awarded GPG’s inaugural grant at a ceremony last year.

In 2016, GPG received sixteen applications from Richmond-area nonprofits and narrowed the field to three: Connor’s Heroes, The Friendship Circle, and the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation. On the night of The Big Give, as it’s known, representatives from the three organizations presented information about their causes, then GPG members voted live. The inaugural grant went to the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation, which offers education and resources for teenagers battling depression. Its namesake was a Douglas Freeman High School student who died of an undiagnosed heart condition in 2014 after completing the Shamrock Half Marathon. Cameron struggled with anxiety and depression, and her dream had been to organize a 5k race to draw awareness to mental wellness. The Foundation has presented the SpeakUp 5k for the past three years.

The GPG gift was used to develop peer support curriculum which provides mental health education to middle and high school teens, parents, teachers, and school administrators.

GPG didn’t stop with delivering the oversized check at The Big Give. “Our entire leadership team really has been involved with the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation,” said Morgan. “And they’ve given us a donation for our scholarship program to say thank you. It was incredible to see it come back to us.”

More than Money

Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation CEO Grace Gallagher says she was amazed at how GPG members wanted to be hands-on. “Honestly, I’m blown away that these girls at their young age would see the importance of being in this together and feel a sense of responsibility to give back to the community.

“It’s inspiring to me. It’s awesome to look at them and see that they don’t just want to check a box and say, ‘I did community service.’ They want to know that it’s impactful and meaningful, and that it’s making a difference. I love watching them from our vantage point, coming in and talking to us and learning about what we do and what we’re trying to accomplish. They’re sitting there attentively, asking beautiful questions, and once they learned our story, they wanted to be involved and make a difference more than giving a grant. They wanted to volunteer.”

Many organizations – especially those groups that help children and teens – require more resources than they have, observed Morgan. “We look for what we feel is the biggest need. What we try to do with Girl Power Grants is find issues, which one speaks to you and you’re passionate about. When you’re passionate, you put forth your best effort.”

Richmond Impact 100 founder (and this year’s YWCA Outstanding Women honoree for volunteerism) Talley Baratka can relate. “My love of community was fully baked in a high school Key Club in Darien, Illinois, at Hinsdale South High School with an amazing teacher who cheered my efforts to make a difference in every aspect of our community,” she said. “At fifteen, we were creating the very first school recycling program, cleaning up our county parks with our own hands, raising money for special needs programs, and in general, having a good time doing it.”

Girls from Higher Achievement joined Girl Power Grants during its first year through a unique scholarship program and participated in the voting for The Big Give during 2016.

Whenever she had an idea for more service, it was met with encouragement. “The experiences I had shaping my community at a young age have profoundly shaped my choices in almost all aspects of my life,” she said. “I go to Girl Power Grants meetings, and I see these young women with the same spark in their eye that I had. They are falling in love with Richmond and its people. Empowerment and empathy for others are essential traits for building engaged citizens and healthy adults.”

Studies have shown that children and adolescents who do community service learn the control and assurance needed to build their sense of self-worth. In addition, evidence shows that young people who volunteer and raise funds learn life skills, responsibility, and commitment, as well as improve their grades and behavior in school.

“Youth have a critical energy, voice, and power that can bring solutions to community challenges,” said Baratka. “But as GPG has proven, adults really need to get out of the way and let youth take the lead.”

Morgan’s mother, Michele Rhudy, also a founding member of Impact 100, agrees. “They’re talking about things that are hard – teenage pregnancy and eating disorders – and they’re sharing their own life experiences. Last year, with the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation, that hit a nerve. Every girl there knew somebody dealing with mental health issues.

“To watch them do this, to watch them think about these issues in this way and have to cast a vote, it’s so powerful for them. The sooner they realize the power they have, the more apt they’ll be to contribute in a big way to the world. I love that.”

Opportunities for Learning

Morgan, her mother said, expressed interest early on in starting a nonprofit, but her parents didn’t encourage it until they realized in middle school just how serious she was. “She went from just talking about helping people to actually writing business plans.”

And from her GPG experience, Morgan says she has learned a lot about business planning and management. “Money collection can be really hard,” she noted. “I’ve struggled with that. It’s not that they don’t want to do it, but these tend to be active, involved, busy girls.”

But commitment to GPG isn’t overwhelming, members say. “One of the main things I tell my friends is how easy it is to have an impact through Girl Power Grants. It can be such a small time commitment, but as a group we have the power to donate our money and time to organizations that we care about. It’s rewarding and it’s just fun. It’s an amazing group of girls, and everything we do is a great experience,” said Maggie.

GPG members are encouraged to earn the money they donate. “For the most part,” said Morgan, “girls write a note when they send in the check and tell us they had a yard sale or what they did to earn it. It’s exciting to see how proud they are of themselves. Sometimes at meetings, if anyone is having a hard time collecting funds, we can share what others did.”

In addition to the membership fee of $100, which goes to support the grant, there also are annual dues of $15, except for those who take part in GPG’s Ambassador program, recruiting and leading mini-chapters.

“In the future, I hope to see Girl Power Grants expand to be able to accommodate even more girls,” said Maggie, who joined GPG’s leadership team this year. “This is the obvious one, as every organization wants to have more participation. But I also hope to be able to see even more member involvement in the organizations we choose to donate our money to. I think that, with the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation, being able to run in the SpeakUp 5K was really cool, but I’d love to be able to have more of a hands-on impact on whichever group we choose.”

It was fitting that the first grant awarded by GPG went to the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation. Working with GPG has helped the Gallagher family heal from Cameron’s death and fulfill some of their teenage daughter’s dreams, said Grace Gallagher. “When I look at them, and I know where Cameron was at their age and what she felt like inside, and to know that a group of girls her age wanted to give back, that’s exactly what Cameron wanted to do. She wanted to do something with her struggle that was meaningful.

“You look at what these girls do, and they do it every year in a different way. They know the community needs them and their perspective and their heart. They are who we want to serve and who we want to be. They are Cameron’s voice.”

Girl Power Grants hopes to be a voice for many other nonprofits, said Morgan. They’re hoping that as they grow their ranks, they can offer several grants in the future so that no finalist leaves The Big Give empty-handed. “It’s hard to turn anyone away,” she admitted. “I’d love to see everybody get something, because everyone who applies works so hard, and you can see yourself being a part of their organization.”

In two short years, the group has made a difference by empowering teenagers and reaching out to support other nonprofits. “These organizations are going to be a big part of our life story. And it’s been life-changing so far,” said Morgan.

Lisa Crutchfield is a freelance writer who lives in the West End with her family. She has a daughter in college. Lisa writes about anything and everything for RFM.
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