Class brings Penny Harvest to local school

USC students in POSC 323: “Civic Engagement and Leadership” are making a difference -— one penny at a time.

Beginning early this semester, students in political science professor Ann Crigler’s  class aimed to bring Penny Harvest, a program that encourages students to save pennies for community investment, to elementary schools throughout Los Angeles.

Penny Harvest, a program within the educational non-profit organization Common Cents, is the largest child philanthropy program in the United States. Since the program’s inception in 1991, children between the ages of four and 14 have been collecting pennies and turning them into grants for their communities — the sum of which now total approximately $8.1 million.

It was through the efforts of the students in POSC 323 that Penny Harvest was able to make its way to the West Coast. According to Vanessa Villanueva, a junior majoring in political science and a teaching assistant for the class, the goal for the class has been to replicate the successes that Penny Harvest has enjoyed on the East Coast.

“What we’re trying to do is make that same program in New York and bring it over here,” Villanueva said.

The students in the class split into four committees: funding, communication, partnership and evaluations. Each committee was in charge of various aspects of implementing the program into local schools ranging from fundraising to grant research.

Sacred Heart, a K-8 charter school in Los Angeles, was the first school at which the USC students were able to implement the program. Students from the class were able to visit the school and introduce the program to the children.

Olivia Diamond, a junior majoring in public relations, said bringing a program like Penny Harvest across the country to Los Angeles was an exciting experience.

“It was really unique to get to start a nonprofit in Los Angeles that already exists in New York but hasn’t yet been brought to the West Coast,” Diamond said. “They’ve done it in some other cities, but it’s cool to start it in such a big metropolitan area.”

The children taking part in the Penny Harvest program were given the task of collecting pennies from their local communities and then deciding where they would like to best allocate their funds. To Villanueva, Penny Harvest’s primary goal is to teach youth about community engagement and basic investment skills.

“What’s great about the Penny Harvest program is that it teaches kids that what they have to do is that they have to research the community around them to see which organizations they want to give the money they raise to,” Villanueva said. “They interview people from homeless shelters and that sort of thing to see who they want the money to go to.”

Vanessa Estrada, a senior majoring in communications, sees the primary goal of the class as to emphasizing the pivotal role that youth can play in civic engagement.

“The goal of Penny Harvest isn’t just raising money,” Estrada said. “What makes it different from any other fundraiser is that … it’s student run. The students decide and vote on where to give the money so we’re giving the students the tools to decide.”

One of the main challenges the class faced was implementing the program into schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“There was supposed to be another charter school and some LAUSD schools,” Villanueva said. “But we probably won’t start until next semester because of bureaucracy concerning LAUSD. Right now, it’s just Sacred Heart.”

Though bypassing bureaucratic hurdles was a challenge for the pilot program, Diamond said it was not an impossible feat.

“It was hard at first because, for example, LAUSD made it difficult to get into the public schools fast enough for it to work this year,” Diamond said. “But we have got into a charter school and we started a mini Penny Harvest on the USC campus to kind of get the ball rolling this year.”

The group that participated in “Mini Harvest” -— where the group sought pennies from students in residence halls -— raised $362.33, with residents in Webb Tower raising the most funds.

One of the main takeaways of the project, according to Villanueva, is that youth can have an impact on their communities, regardless of their age.

“Not only does it teach the kids to be more aware of their community, but it also empowers them to help their community,” Villanueva said. “It teaches that kids are not a burden to society, but rather they are an asset to society and that’s the great thing about this program.”

Looking to the future, the class hopes to expand the program throughout Los Angeles and pass on what they’ve learned to civic engagement classes to follow.

“Hopefully we’re going to try to get the communities around the schools we are working in to know so that everyone sees how interesting and unique it is to get these kids so civically engaged at a young age,” Diamond said.

The group plans to expand the program to five schools next semester.