With Wishbone.org, Beth Schmidt is helping disadvantaged teens pursue their passions and claim a brighter future.

By Ellen Lee

Beth Schmidt was at her wits' end. The year was 2008, and she was a new instructor at Alain Leroy Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles, a neighborhood infamous for its poverty, gangs and violence. At 24, she had been assigned there by Teach for America (TFA), the nonprofit group that recruits college graduates and professionals and places them in low-income communities after a summer of intensive training. But Beth was daunted by the challenges: overcrowded classrooms, scant supplies, piles of paperwork and, worst of all, teens who seemed to have absolutely no interest in learning. When she asked her 10th-grade English students to write a paper on John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, only a handful completed the assignment. "I was devastated and viewed it as a personal failure," she recalls. "Then I took a step back and realized the kids weren't excited about Steinbeck because it had nothing to do with their lives."

So Beth came up with a project that she hoped would truly engage her students: Find and research a summer program or college extension class you would like to attend and explain why you are passionate about it. To sweeten the deal, she offered the seven students who did the best work the opportunity to realize their dreams—at her expense. This time Beth was delighted by the response; the teens, it turned out, weren't apathetic but full of hope. Roscoe Smith, a member of the school's football team, wanted to train at USC's Rising Stars Camp, where he could run drills with the nation's top coaches. Kiara Chilin was eager to take a six-week course in stem cell biology, politics and ethics at UCLA. Beth was moved by Sandra Davidson, whose goal was to enroll in UCLA's Summer Mock Trial Institute, a rigorous program where she could learn about the legal system and explore careers as a district attorney or public defender. "No one had ever asked these kids what they wanted to learn," says Beth, now 29. "It really lit a spark."

But making good on her promise would be far more expensive than she had anticipated—the total cost for the programs was nearly $13,000. An avid jogger, Beth came up with a plan while on a long training run: ask family, friends, colleagues and local businesses to "sponsor" her for an upcoming marathon by contributing to the cause. She handed out pamphlets with the students' profiles, photographs and excerpts from their essays to everyone she knew. Miraculously, she raised all the funding within a few weeks. "Reading their stories seemed to touch a nerve in people," Beth says. "A lot of our donors saw a little bit of themselves in these kids and their desire for a better life."

The summer programs were transformative—when the students returned to school in the fall, they were more confident, driven and focused. "That's when I realized I wanted to do this on a bigger scale," Beth says. After her two-year TFA commitment ended, she moved to San Francisco with the aim of starting a nonprofit called Wishbone that would recruit and raise money through the Internet. She found an engineer who volunteered to build a prototype website. Private technology investors made donations, as did the Kauffman Foundation (a supporter of entrepreneurial and educational projects), which allowed Beth to expand her Bay Area organization to New York City. After she contacted high school teachers in disadvantaged neighborhoods there and asked them to submit candidates in 2012, Wishbone was officially launched.

Once nominated, students register online and apply to one of the nearly 700 accredited programs listed on the website, from Johns Hopkins University to military academies to fashion design camps. Those who qualify submit a personal essay to Wishbone, and Beth makes the final selections. The nonprofit then shoots a short video of each teen, which is posted along with information about the program they want to attend and the cost. Donors can give as little as $10 to help a particular student or contribute to a general fund. Wishbone also negotiates full or partial scholarships from some of its program partners. That two-pronged approach has enabled every high schooler featured on the site—140 in all—to pursue his or her passion over the past two years.

Beth runs Wishbone with the help of a full-time assistant. She hopes to grow it by bringing Boston and Los Angeles into the fold by the end of 2014. But as much as she's looking ahead, she has not forgotten the seven teens at Locke High School who first inspired her—especially Sandra, now a 21-year-old honors student at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, who plans on going to graduate school. "She told me that the mock trial program at UCLA fueled her desire to help domestic violence victims," says Beth. "Everyone deserves equal opportunities. Sandra and all the kids at Wishbone have come from behind and worked hard to redefine their future and make something of it. They fill me with awe."

To learn more, visit Wishbone.org

Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Family Circle magazine.