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Vital People: Program helps students learn the power of generosity

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Ashley Bihis says before she joined Vital Youth, she thought philanthropy was just about older people donating money. The program helped her realize it can also be about giving time, she says. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Students from 10 local schools are learning about critical issues in their communities and the power of giving through Vital Youth, a program designed to introduce youth to philanthropy.

Launched in 2003 by the Victoria Foundation, the program enrolls dozens of students in school leadership classes or youth advisory committees every year.

Teams of students are given $2,500 and tasked with choosing registered charities on southern Vancouver Island to distribute the money among. The high schools the participants are enrolled in also receive an annual grant of $500 to an endowment fund. As these endowment funds grow, they will eventually be able to generate returns large enough to ensure a sustainable source of grant funds indefinitely.

Using the foundation’s Vital Signs community report, the students research, conduct interviews and do on-site visits with charity candidates. Each participant provides input and the team as a whole decides how to allocate the grant funds.

Ashley Bihis, who was involved with the program for three years before graduating from Stelly’s Secondary School this spring, said she knew nothing about philanthropy when she started.

Bihis said she assumed it was just about older people donating money.

“The program changed and expanded my perspective. Before the program, I would say: ‘Young people typically don’t have a lot of money to donate, so why would I be interested in philanthropy?’ I came to realize that time — which I have a lot more of than money — spent performing charity work could be considered philanthropic.”

The goal is to inspire youth to practise philanthropy and to continue to support their communities throughout their lives. During their time in the program, students gain valuable analytical skills and insight into the needs of the community.

Samantha Yee, a Grade 11 student at St. Michael’s University School and current participant, says the program helped push her out of her comfort zone. “I am more engaged now after learning about local grassroots organizations doing such great work. I certainly wouldn’t have done it on my own.”

A private person by nature, Yee says she had only shared her philanthropic interests with a small circle of friends at school before joining the program, which offered an opportunity to meet people her age with the same goals.

“Knowing there are other like-minded people who are equally interested in making a change has given me more confidence,” said the 16-year-old.

The program came about from a realization that youth often have little say in programs for them, said Zahura Ahmed, strategic initiative senior associate at the Victoria Foundation.

“This program is an opportunity for the students to engage and develop connections within the giving community,” said Ahmed. “It is a two-way, reciprocal relationship.”

She said the hope is that alumni will take with them the lessons learned in the program as they move through life.

“Seeing these students grow is the true measure of success for this program.”

parrais@timescolonist.com