Read about Willie Johnson's
involvement with grant distribution.
What kind of philanthropic or volunteer work
did/do you do?
The philanthropic group I'm involved in gives out grants based on the organizations’ financial needs.
What is the name and location of the organization?
Willie: The name of the organization is the Youth Fund Distribution Committee. It's located in the heart of downtown Cleveland at 1331 Euclid Avenue.
Tell us about the project, especially who benefited from this work.
This project combines 60 students, 2 per school from diverse schooling environments, such as suburban, rural and urban city schools. This organization teaches you the importance of networking and making friends. We meet in the United Way building over the course of 8 sessions, one for every month from October to June.
In December we get a break, and each session we meet there's a different objective. There's a budget put in place for us; thanks to some fundraising from United Way, this year's budget is about $50,000.
During the second session in November, we come up with different categories. Based on those categories, we make up criteria that each organization has to meet in order to be eligible for grant money. The maximum grant for any organization to receive is $5,000. In December our advisors
send out our criteria to organizations all over the different counties of Ohio. The organizations send their proposals, and we decide whether or not we want to pursue them any further. Then we interview so many organizations at a time from February to April. In May we discuss each organization’s
interview and look over their proposal; based on those factors we then discuss how they're going to benefit from our grant money. By the end of that session, we make our final decisions. In June we distribute the money in the board room to those organizations we selected.
What inspired you to get involved?
Willie: To know that I can give back to my community inspired me to get involved in this Philanthropy program. I said, "Okay it’s worth a shot." I came into this program open-mindedly and walked out with a new appreciation for the world. I felt a sense
of peace and enjoyment. I never expected this program to have the effect it had on me. There are so many things that I took for granted that I don't any longer. I've learned to cherish every moment I get to live and enjoy life on earth.
How did you first get involved? Through school? Your parents? Some other means? Give us some details.
Willie: I got involved through school. I felt as though it was my calling. I was always talking about change until one day I decided to be a part of the Youth Fund Distribution Committee. I knew that I would be changing the world somehow, but mainly the fact that my
involvement in this program would help out some organizations that were in financial need. To me that was amazing because not many students at my school would get involved in this program just because they're worried about what everyone else is going to think, or they feel as though their opinion doesn't count,
but I found out it does. That's why I am very appreciative and grateful to the Youth Fund Distribution Committee for being my extended family.
What is/was the best thing about your experience?
Willie: In this prestigious program everyone has a choice. The choice is you can either speak up for yourself, or you can just run with the flow of things without really contributing to any of the discussions, which is sad because there's enough room for everyone's opinion. Also, just the fact that you're
on a committee with people who come from different backgrounds but are trying to reach the same goal as you. I respect and enjoy everyone. Sometimes I wish we could meet more days out of the month. Anyway, with the little time that we do meet, you learn to make the best of it plus make some long lasting friendships along the way.
What is/was the hardest part?
Willie: Making the final decisions is always the hardest part because you might get really involved in one organization. If the committee votes and they don't like it, you have to go with it, anyway. During the final decision process you have to learn not to take it personally. Don't let your feelings
and emotions get the best of you because there are many other organizations to fight for.
What was the biggest surprise?
Willie: The biggest surprise for me was how well we clicked with one another. For instance, I might not have talked to everyone in the program, but I did say “Hi” or “Good Morning” to them. In this program, we're all equal, and we're one big crazy family.
I mean, you have your comedians, critics, politicians, voters, and positive people around you. One thing we don't allow in this program is negativity because our time is too short to be letting little petty stuff get to you. Often times we forget about our personal worries and focus on our goal, which is to help out needy organizations.
What new things have you learned as a result of your experience, and how have you changed as a result?
Willie: I learned how to keep striving for excellence and to never let anyone stand in your way. As a result of that, I have started to live more of my life for me and make myself a little happier. I’m still helping and giving back to my community, though, but putting a little "me" time in there as well.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of getting involved in philanthropy or volunteering?
Willie: From the bottom of my heart I say get into philanthropy or volunteering as soon as possible. The sooner you’re involved the better off you are because programs like these can change you. I mean you tend to get more out of something than what you put in. There are going to be rewards that no one can give you like these programs can.
It betters you mentally, physically and spiritually. Believe me, I am a true testimony of that. You'll have a new outlook on life and the hidden blessings it has to offer you. Once you get involved, the options are endless as to what you can accomplish next. Oh, and one more thing, whatever you choose to do, do it open-mindedly. Don't have an agenda when you enter the program because that agenda can clearly change.
For example, if you’re doing volunteer work at a nursing home just to get scholarship money, don't be surprised if you find yourself enjoying what you're doing and not worrying about the scholarships anymore. All you’re worried about is helping out those sick people and making their life more enjoyable. Trust me when I say, "You get more out of something than what you put in!"
Youth Fund Distribution Committee, United Way Services of Greater Cleveland
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