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Penny Project nets big bucks: Collecting enough copper coins makes a difference, youth learn Mary Jacobs, Jul 18, 2008
Hilary Sheridan made a new friend, one of the children in a foster home in Accra, Ghana, while visiting in June 2007.
By Mary Jacobs Staff Writer
Just as a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, this big-dollar, money-raising project began with handful of coins.
In the summer of 2005, the youth of First United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Mich., got into a conversation over what associate pastor Jeff Nelson jokingly calls “youth group communion”: pizza and Coke.
Mr. Nelson was tossing around ideas for outreach mission projects for the coming school year. Maybe the youth could rake leaves for elderly neighbors or hold a bake sale, he said.
“The kids looked at me and said my dreams were too small,” he recalled. “And if it was OK with me, they’d just as soon change the world.”
What was on their minds was the devastation in Africa caused by HIV and AIDS. The possibility of making a significant difference from their community in suburban Detroit, however, seemed remote.
“At first it seemed way too big to make any difference,” Mr. Nelson said. “But then someone asked, ‘What if we collected one penny for each of the 22 million people affected by HIV in Africa?’”
The young people reached into their pockets and put all their loose change—a total of about $4—on the table. And the Penny Project was born.
Since that day, the youth have raised about $180,000—a handful of coins at a time.
“It’s crazy,” said Mr. Nelson. “All of that money has come into the church through spare change. Never a day passes when someone doesn’t bring a baggie or a mayonnaise jar full of coins to the church to donate.”
In the first two years, the youth donated the funds to an orphanage in Ghana, and helped a group of women there who are living with HIV to start a small sewing business to provide for their families. The youth group also donated $10,000 to fund a scholarship at Africa University for students in the community health program. And with $20,000, they began building a youth center in Zambia.
“We learned that God can change the world with our pennies,” said Mr. Nelson.
In June 2007, some of the youth visited Ghana. A group of adults from the church visited again in February. Seeing the success of the sewing project, the teens became interested in micro-lending—providing small amounts of capital to help indigent people start small businesses.
So when they came back, they renewed their efforts in the Penny Project. At a worship service in June, the teens presented a check for $120,000 to Opportunity International, a non-profit microfinance organization. The money will provide small loans and business training to women in Ghana.
“We liked the fact that this money will be re-circulated,” said Jessica Smith, 17, one of the youth. “It’s not just a one-time donation.”
Kathleen Perry, 17, now a senior and a member of the church’s youth group, learned about the Penny Project as a freshman and has worked on it ever since.
“I really just fell in love with it,” she said. “It made me want to pour a lot of passion into it.”
Kathleen traveled to Ghana last summer, visiting orphanages and hospitals and seeing how HIV/AIDS has affected communities. While there, she met a group of women living with HIV, struggling to make ends meet. Money from the Penny Project had allowed them to start a small sewing business, creating a stable income for their families.
“I was able to see their store,” she said. “It was awesome to see all the pennies at work like that. I do other volunteer work, but this project has a special place in my heart.”
“Our church does a lot in the Detroit area, but this mission reaches the poorest of the poor,” said Jessica. “They’re the people who really need our money and our time.”
The project’s momentum has created many unexpected connections, linking church members to others around the U.S. and the world.
One small rural United Methodist church in North Carolina learned of the Penny Project and now sends a check that ranges from $15 to $35 every month. Bridget Nelson, Mr. Nelson’s wife, became pen pals with Samuel Akrugu, a 12-year-old who lives in the orphanage the youth visited in Ghana. When she gave birth to a baby boy on May 25, she named him Samuel.
“The youth learned that when we respond to the poor, it transforms the lives of not just those we are helping, but those of everyone involved,” said Mr. Nelson. “We are a different church than we were three years ago, in large part because of the Penny Project.”