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On a sunny Los Angeles morning Dianne Callister, 49, boarded a plane for Kona International Airport in Hawaii, en route to the town of Pahoa, some 100 miles away. When she arrived at the Kua O Ka La Public Charter School, she received the warmest of welcomes—the entire student body was there to greet her. The middle school had been chosen to receive a $5,000 grant from Project Give, the group Dianne founded that challenges tweens and teens to design their own projects to help the disadvantaged. After she brainstormed with the kids, they came up with a proposal to clear refuse and debris from local beaches, hire experts to devise a tsunami evacuation plan, and print and distribute it. "It's always a thrill when I can watch students in action," she says. "They feel like heroes when they help find solutions to problems they believe are important."
Thanks to Dianne, there's a rapidly growing roster of tweens and teens who are proud to say they've stepped up and served. Since 2008 the nonprofit has awarded $200,000 to 150 middle schools, where students have put in more than 20,000 hours giving back. And there are plenty more who want to sign on. "Schools apply for funding through our website, and I call each one to interview administrators and teachers," says Dianne, who receives about 50 applications each year. "They might have a project in mind, but usually not. I'm looking for enthusiasm, vision, commitment—and something more. What I want to hear is passion."
Each school that secures a grant decides who will be involved—a class, grade or, as was the case at Kua O Ka La, every single student. The only requirement is that the kids themselves explore problems that need fixing and figure out a way to address them. "We provide the seed money, but I want to see them leverage it for maximum benefit," says Dianne. She also has a larger mission in mind—to reduce the student dropout rate by helping kids forge a meaningful connection between real life and what they do in class. "Charitable activities instill a sense of purpose, boost self-esteem and make them less likely to do something foolish," she says.
Dianne speaks from experience. Although three of her children—Jenna, 28, Reed, 21, and Olivia, 18—weathered the middle school years just fine, Alyssa, 26, struggled academically and socially. She managed to make it to college. But it wasn't until she got involved in a program that sent laptops to children in Rwanda and the Congo that she regained focus. "I wish I had been part of a Project Give group when I was younger," says Alyssa, who is now pursuing an M.B.A. "Mom's idea of giving kids the means to make a difference is spot-on." Alyssa's turmoil and eventual turnaround gave Dianne the idea to launch Project Give in 2008. Her husband, Stephen, 53, an attorney and founder of the Singer Foundation, an L.A.-based philanthropy that helps mothers and children in need, supported her and also suggested she ask Singer to back the cause. The foundation agreed, committing to 10 grants of $5,000.
Dianne looked into local schools that lacked funding but had teachers who were eager for students to participate in community service. "I gave a talk at Skirball Middle School in Watts about the things the kids could do with a grant, such as donating meals to homeless shelters or art and craft supplies to orphanages," she says. Skirball signed up on the spot, and other schools quickly followed. In 2009 the nonprofit started soliciting individual donations and corporate sponsors. Dianne launched the website and created student leader manuals, brochures and flyers, as well as T-shirts for the student teams. "Stephen and the kids offered to box and deliver them," says Dianne. "I love how my family has really pitched in."
She has since reduced the grants—they now average $1,500—enabling her to reach more kids with the same amount of funding. Projects have ranged from making and selling gift items to benefit the Humane Society to buying large-print books for nursing home residents and sending supplies to Haiti earthquake survivors and children in Iraq. Alma Guzman, a former English instructor at Gage Middle School outside Los Angeles, credits the program with teaching life-changing skills. "After my sixth-graders bought food for needy families, people told me the kids were much more polite and self-assured," she says. "And confident kids are less likely to take dangerous risks."
That's precisely the kind of transformation Dianne is hoping for. She'll never forget the Hawaiian phrase the Kua O Ka La students chose to describe their project—ke ala pono, or "the right path."
"That captures our goal perfectly," she says. "If Project Give can keep kids on track during middle school years and beyond, there couldn't be any greater reward."
If you would like your child's school to be considered for a Project Give grant, visit project-give.org.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.