Troubled pasts inspire need to help today
Freehold students raise money for charities through grant seminar
An honor roll student wearing a blue polo shirt and dark-rimmed glasses sat in his chair and shared the story of his second family.
Juventino Lopez, now 13, found them years ago at Family Promise, a national nonprofit that serves the homeless in Monmouth County. He forgot the volunteers’ names but fondly recalls their small acts of kindness, like the time a volunteer gave him money for the school book fair because his mother couldn’t afford it.
“They helped me and my mom when we were having a hard time,” said Lopez, an eighth-grader at Freehold Intermediate School. “I chose this [organization] because … I just wanted to make my mom proud.”
Now he is doing just that, by taking part in a grantwriting
seminar, created by local philanthropist Barry Tobias and the Freehold Education Foundation, designed to teach students how to help nonprofits get
Members of the Freehold Intermediate School’s grant-writing seminar gathered in May to discuss their proposals.
charity money. But the extracurricular exercise also gave Lopez and his classmates an outlet to confront painful, traumatic experiences and give back.
These students attend the third-most underfunded school district in the state. In 2016-17 alone, the district was shortchanged about $12 million in state aid, according to the New Jersey school funding formula.
The disparity between Freehold Borough and neighboring school districts is so stark that the district filed a lawsuit in May arguing the state is depriving its students of a fair education. The school district remains overcrowded — with more than 1,700 students when capacity is at 1,148 — and is 50 teachers short, Superintendent Rocco Tomazic said.
Despite the lack of resources, Tobias said the grantwriting seminar has worked well at Freehold Intermediate School. It began four years ago with just eight students. Now it has nearly two dozen students.
Tobias, the former chief financial officer of the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation in New York City, underwrites the grants. He and Jean Holtz, director of the Freehold Education Foundation, teach the students how to apply for grants and weed out inefficient charities. By the end of the class, the students are expected to submit a grant application and, if approved, donate money to the nonprofit of their choice.
Tobias starts by giving the students a word of advice. “Charity starts from here, the heart,” he says, pointing to his chest.
And if more than 15 percent of every dollar goes to administrative expenses, he says, you hang up.
Principal Ronnie Doherty also worked with the students, giving advice and letting them use her office to make calls. Little by little, she noticed students gravitate toward organizations that once helped them or that addressed issues they were facing.
One student proposed a grant for the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide after her cousin killed himself. Another who says she was sexually abused by a relative proposed a grant for the Prevention of Child Abuse.
“The charities that they selected have some really personal effect on them, on their lives, on people they know,” Doherty said.
Lopez said he wanted to give back to Family Promise, which took him and his mother in for three months. The Monmouth County branch partners with local churches, which take turns each week offering food and shelter for up to 14 people.
Volunteers typically set up inflatable mattresses in Sunday school rooms and let children play in supervised preschool or daycare rooms.
Even as he shuffled from church to church, Lopez got to school on time.
“I want (to help) other kids that are going through a hard time or they don’t have a home or they don’t have a family to
be with,” he said. “It’s terrible to not know where you’re going to sleep tonight or how you’re going to wash your clothes.”
Lopez, one of the school’s top students, now lives with his aunt and uncle in the borough. He plans to attend the Marine Academy of Science Technology in Atlantic Highlands in September.
Tobias initially planned to approve a handful of grant applications, but he decided to fund each one, including Lopez’s.
Lopez’s story came as a surprise to his classmate, Giselle Mayen. She also proposed a grant for Family Promise, but it was inspired by her father’s story of homelessness in Mexico.
Her father grew up in a dilapidated wooden cabin, cobbled together by her grandfather.
“They experienced leaks. Storms were crazy. The ground was all rock and dirt,” she said. “It was so bad. They didn’t have anything.”
Mayen, 13, lives in a house in the borough with her father, a landscaper, and her mother.
Both Mayen and Lopez applied for grants to subsidize rental deposits for families leaving Family Promise.
“They need help to still find a home when they get out. It was so hard for me and my mom when we were trying to get out of the program,” said Lopez. “I want it to be easier for people to go back into a normal lifestyle and to have an actual home.”
Steph Solis: 732-403-0074; firstname.lastname@example.org “It’s terrible to not know where you’re going to sleep tonight or how you’re going to wash your clothes.”
EIGHTH-GRADER AT FREEHOLD INTERMEDIATE SCHOOL