"No matter how old you are, you can give back to your community."
Sonya Sackner-Bernstein, 17, of New York, New York, U.S., gives back to her community by participating in a grantmaking organization that is both led and run entirely by students.
What kind of philanthropic or volunteer work did/do you do?
Sonya: I am an executive director of SHAPEfund, a grantmaking organization that is both led and run entirely by students. The fund awards grants to exceptional New York City nonprofit organizations. In addition, SHAPEfund serves as an innovative tool to educate the next generation of young people and to ensure a place for them in the philanthropic world.
What is the name and location of the organization?
Sonya: SHAPEfund - Bronx, New York.
What inspired you to get involved?
Sonya: The second I heard about SHAPEfund, I was intrigued. The opportunity to enter the philanthropic world — one historically reserved for the elderly and the rich — is quite unique. I had participated in a lot of hands-on community service activities, and I was excited to contribute to my community in another way.
How did you first get involved? Through school? Your parents?
Sonya: SHAPEfund was founded by three students at my school in the spring of 2003. Tenth grade students are encouraged to apply through student announcements, bulletins, and flyers. When I heard juniors and seniors talking about their work at SHAPEfund, I knew had to get involved. It was such a unique opportunity. Unlike other youth grantmaking organizations, the fund is entirely led and run by students. That means no full-time employees and minimal adult involvement.
What is/was the best thing about your experience?
Sonya: The best part of my experience at SHAPEfund is hearing back from our grantee organizations. Knowing that our money has changed existing programs, or even implemented new ones, is such an empowering feeling.
What is/was the hardest part?
Sonya: The hardest part of my experience is picking our grantee organizations. Each year we receive between fifteen and fifty requests for proposals, and because of limited resources we can only award three or four grants. Through the application process, we see the fantastic work that New York-based grassroots nonprofits are doing, and rejecting many of their proposals is certainly the hardest part.
What was the biggest surprise?
Sonya: The biggest surprise was how seriously many adults took me. At first I was very timid and nervous about approaching other philanthropic and nonprofit professionals, but when I finally did I was received quite warmly. As a member of the fundraising committee, I was thrilled to see so many people who were excited about our cause.
What new things have you learned as a result of your experience and how have you changed as a result?
Sonya: Firstly, I've learned communication, thinking, leadership, and organizational skills. I've also learned skills specific to media and philanthropy, like writing press releases and how the grant process works. In addition to practical skills, I've learned that no matter how old you are, you can give back to your community. I never would have believed that I would have the opportunity to affect so many lives at such a young age, but ever since I've been in the tenth grade, SHAPEfund has been a vehicle for me to do so.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of getting involved in philanthropy or volunteering?
Sonya: I would let my peers know that there are so many easy ways to give back to their communities. For example, just by changing your search engine to goodsearch.com, you can donate money to your favorite nonprofit without going out of your way at all.
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