The grant making program Community 101 has been funding projects around Oregon for 25 years. What’s different about it is that all the funds are allocated by high school students who learn real-world skills by giving out real dollars to various causes. In Wallowa county, student-led projects have included arts and mental health programs for teens, a summer lunch program and a new skateboard ramp at a local park.
The ramp replacement effort ended up sparking a campaign to fund the refurbishment of the entire skate park. We talk with Christian Morris who graduated high school in 2021 and helped bring that project to fruition. And we’re also joined by alternative education teachers Maria Weer and Ron Pickens, who integrate the Community 101 program into the health curriculum there.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Over the last 25 years, the Community 101 program has given out millions of dollars in grants throughout Oregon. It has funded the work of hundreds of nonprofits. That is what grant making programs do. What sets it apart is the way it gives out these grants. All the funds are allocated by high school students who vet requests before giving out thousands of dollars to various causes. We’re gonna hear right now what this has meant for one school in one community in Wallowa County. Maria Weer and Ron Pickens teach at the Alternative Education School in Enterprise. Christian Morris graduated from this high school in 2021. They all join me now. Welcome to Think out loud.
Maria Weer: Hi, thanks.
Ron Pickens: Thank you.
Christian Morris: Thank you.
Miller: It’s great to have all three of you on. Maria Weer first, how does Community 101 work? What are the basics?
Weer: We applied about 10 years ago to be a Community 101 school through an invite from the Oregon Community Foundation. Each year I work with the students through a curriculum that starts in September to develop a mission statement that is kid driven, and figure out what nonprofits we want to invite. From there, the kids do all of the interviewing based on fits with their mission. And then finally they have their $5,000 and they have to figure out how to allocate those funds to the different organizations or projects that have applied.
Miller: Have the mission statements changed? Have you seen themes that sort of have evolved over the course of the decade?
Weer: I have, especially since COVID. I think the last two or three years, our missions have focused a lot around opportunities for connection and recreation for youth. Kind of the underlining for these being ways to decrease depression, suicide, bullying, and creating more opportunities for youth in our community.
Miller: It’s a mirror of the issues especially affecting young people, and how those have evolved over just 10 years?
Weer: I definitely think so. We started with some concrete things like we want to fund summer lunch, we need food, or we want to provide these tangible resources. And as the events of the last couple of years have brought about some heightened anxiety, some lack of connection, I have seen a real shift in what the kids think is important to support.
Miller: The Oregon Community Foundation, my understanding is that they give you a fair amount of latitude in terms of how you’ll roll this out. Why did you decide to include this in a health curriculum?
Weer: So we think that health is not just what comes in the textbook in terms of physical health, mental health, but also in the health of the community and the opportunity to give back. We also feel like health is being able to present yourself when you’re an adult. And so we felt like this program had opportunities for very genuine, hands-on reading, writing, interviewing, presenting at city council meetings, just some real leadership opportunities that I feel like should be part of a more holistic health approach.
Miller: Ron Pickens, can you give us a sense for what that vetting is like? How do students over the years talk about how they should spend this grant money?
Pickens: I’ve been part of the project for about four years, so I don’t have the big picture of it. But I think it’s been really neat just to listen to what they think is important, the issues that they’re seeing on a day to day basis, and following their lead on that.
Miller: And that includes, as Maria mentioned, interviewing non-profits, and really it seems like flipping the normal power dynamic. This is not the executive director of some nonprofit saying to a 17 year old “we’re gonna help you,” it’s the other way around, a 17 year old saying “tell us why we should fund your work.” What are those interviews like?
Pickens: I’ve been on both sides of it where I’m in the background, but I’m also the one being interviewed. It is really cool to listen to the whys. They’re asking those tough questions, the importance of why these projects might make a difference in the community. So it’s been fun to be part of both sides of that conversation with them.
Miller: I’m curious what it was like when you were on the asking end. What do you remember from that time?
Pickens: On the asking end, that was the spring of 2021, specifically for the skate park revamp that we did in the town of Enterprise. There were a number of boys that we had in the alt-ed group at the time that were passionate about skateboarding, but more importantly trying to figure out how to keep kids engaged. And so I was able to take on that lead. It was just $5,000 at the time. So trying to present to them the importance of keeping kids engaged in recreation, it was fun to engage with them in that manner.
Miller: Christian Morris, this brings us to you. You graduated from the alternative education school in 2021. Where did the idea for a new skate park ramp come from?
Morris: Well some of the boys there really like skateboarding, more so than me. But I was kind of into it. And there was a couple of kids who would ride their longboards and skateboards to school in the mornings, and that’s kind of where the idea came from.
Miller: What was the skate park like at that point? What was the condition that it was in before this grant?
Morris: It was in really, really terrible condition, I’d say. Especially for people like me who wanted to get into skateboarding. The ramps were really too big and too tall, and there was only two ramps there, so there wasn’t really much that little kids could go to learn.
Miller: Do you remember what your pitch was, or the pitch of some of your fellow students, for why this would be a good use of some of the grant money?Why it was that fixing up a skate park would be beneficial for the community?
Morris: Ron’s always seen it like “go outside and have fun and not be inside all day.” I think rebuilding a skate park would bring a lot more kids outside to play, have fun, make friends. It’s part of a drug prevention thing, keep kids more outside and less away from the drugs.
Miller: Ron, how did a portion of a $5,000 grant um that would be used to buy just a new ramp for this park, how did that turn into $300,000 for, if I understand correctly, a whole new skate park?
Pickens: So basically, Community 101 was kind of the catalyst to that, that $300,000. It first came out where the boys wanted to build just the ramp. And so I said we need to go to City Council and present this and gain their permission. So we present it. And then the story was then published in the local paper. And then it was from that publishing of the story that a community member came into building healthy families and was interested in supporting the project, basically wanting to fund the whole thing. And from there it was brainstorming, are we just talking just the mini ramp at this point? Or should we be thinking bigger? And then, the thought was bigger.
The skate park project in and of itself, I think we were able to raise close to $85,000. And then from there, the additional funds was for another project. We had gained so much momentum in our community, kids were excited, we were able to work on another project in the town of Wallowa, it was called a bicycle playground. So there’s a pump track and various features for kids to ride on. And I’ll never forget there was a moment a kid that I was mentoring at the time, we were standing in front of the wall fire station, and he asked the question “when’s it our turn?” He had seen the momentum that we had with the skate park in Enterprise, and he realized that he didn’t really have those resources in the town of Wallowa. And it was through that question that sparked what ultimately became greater than $300,000 between those two projects. So that’s where that dollar amount comes into play.
Miller: Christian, do you remember when you saw these finished parks for the first time?
Morris: Yeah, I was one of the people who helped do the grand opening for the skate park. I remember seeing it and I was like “wow, this is really cool being able to see something I’ve been a part of come into real life.”
Miller: My understanding is that part of your artwork is actually used for one of the signs in the park as well. How did that come to be?
Morris: I drew a picture for Ron the year before for some of that drug prevention thing I was talking about, but we never ended up using it for anything. And then Ron asked me one day if I could make some art for the skate park, and I brought up that I made that old picture for him. We unburied it, and we thought it was a fitting choice for the skate park.
Miller: Maria Weer, we’ve been focusing for a little bit on the skate park and the bike park. But can you give us a sense for the range of programs that have been funded using this program over the last decade in Wallowa County?
Weer: I would love to, we have funded a variety of programs, in between eight and ten different nonprofits or agencies throughout Wallowa County, everything from, like I mentioned earlier, money to support the summer lunch in the park program, to Wallowa Resources, who does environmental education. We bought some snow shoes for their outdoor program or some hip waders. Money has gone to the local domestic violence shelter. One year, there was a lot of students that had personal experience with domestic violence and they wanted some improvements to the safe house. We’ve also had a lot of money go to youth art programs. For a lot of kids, art has been identified as a stress relief and coping mechanism. And so really wanting to make sure there were some funds aside for either art scholarships or teen specific art programming.
It’s really run the gamut to whatever the kids are feeling for their group is really, really important for them.
Miller: Do students ever get a chance to follow up on these grants and to see how the money was spent, and to decide if it was spent well?
Weer: I think so. I think Christian being here is a great example. We’ve had the opportunity to celebrate and revisit. I hope he thinks every time he comes home and sees that sign “I’m a part of that.”
Another good example with the bicycle playground is here we are a year later having a bike rodeo, to use the playground to teach kids safety skills, to provide a positive community event. And we have reached out to kids that have helped with building the bike park or kids from the Community 101 program that designed art pieces for that project to really come back and be a part of this and see that this isn’t a one and done, this is an ongoing effort. And that even though they’re young, they’re able to have an ongoing impact in our community.
Miller: I’m curious, what impact do you think this program has on your students?
Weer: I think it’s empowering. I think for so many of our kids, we are an alternative education program. Students are not always, but often coming to us because they haven’t been heard or they’ve been struggling or they need some more intensive wraparound services. And I think so often they haven’t viewed themselves as people who get to give back to the community. And this is a true opportunity where they can see their positive impact. They can support the community that’s often supported them, and they can carry with them the skills and experiences as they head into whatever their future holds.
Miller: Maria, Ron and Christian, thanks very much.
Christian Morris graduated from the Alternative Education High School in Enterprise in 2021. Maria Weer and Ron Pickens teach there and they are a part of the 25 year old grant project that’s run by the Oregon Community Foundation. It’s called Community 101 and it basically let’s young people - high schoolers - decide how grant money should be spent.
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