Saginaw youth a FORCE for positive change

When it comes to making a difference in the Saginaw community, the young people in the area don't mess around. They use FORCE.

Saginaw County Youth FORCE is the Saginaw Community Foundation's youth advisory board. Youth, ages 14-21, make up this diverse group and take part in grantmaking and community service. Their activities and services are varied and provide a meaningful experience in the way of philanthropy and volunteerism.

FORCE causes and activities represent real ways of giving back to the community, and they have been part of the community for the past 20 years. FORCE was established in 1992, as a result of a $1 million challenge grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

These funds were permanently endowed for the benefit of youth.

"The big difference between FORCE and other youth organizations is the kids are making the decisions with the money, and are actually deciding what to do with it," says Kendra Kempf, program officer and FORCE coordinator. "The grant-making process is exactly the same as the other parts of the Saginaw Community Foundation. The only difference is all of the money has to go toward youth-oriented programs."

The "student-voice" aspect of the program goes a long way with the participants.

"FORCE gives us the unique opportunity to become leaders in our community through grant-making and community service," says Trevor Flegenheimer of Heritage High School. "We get to be part of the process."

In 2012, FORCE has $20,000 to grant toward youth programs. They grant money twice a year--in March and December. The 40-member group just finished doling out $12,000 at its March meeting.

Recipients of the March grants included the City Rescue Mission of Saginaw, which received $1,500 to assist in its youth homelessness initiative. Saginaw Charter Township received $2,500 to help build a disc golf course, Merrill Community Schools picked up $2,000 to help enhance its welding program and Birch Run Area Schools received $1,000 to add to its non-fiction book section of its middle school library. There were other grants, as well, and there will be $8,000 more spread among other groups in December.

Some of the goals of FORCE, says Kempf, include encouraging local youth to get involved in community problem solving, providing young people with a meaningful experience in philanthropy and volunteerism, and granting funds that will enrich the lives of Saginaw County youth.

FORCE has an executive committee, which meets monthly to decide what to address at the monthly meetings of the group as a whole. The FORCE students come from 13 schools throughout the county, and that diversity is important, says Kempf.

"The kids get to work with kids from the other side of the tracks," she says. "A lot of times with youth organizations, it isn't that way. But FORCE lets kids interact with other types of kids. You might have kids traveling 35 or 40 minutes to come to a meeting. Working with all types of kids to make a positive change in the community is a unique opportunity that we wouldn't have without FORCE."

Being an actual part of the decision making process is what sets FORCE apart from many youth organizations, says Kyle Giallonardo of Nouvel Catholic Central High School.

"FORCE has provided me with the opportunity to be part of helping the Saginaw Area," he says. "I have learned leadership skills, while contributing to my hometown."

Kempf attends the meetings, but she says she "sits in the corner and lets the kids run the meeting." She only gets involved when guidance is necessary and something important has been missed. She also credits community volunteer Joe Madison with being an important part of FORCE for the past 12 years.

"I have a special place in my heart for these kids," she says. "You watch how they grow as they interact with each other, the friendships they make, the difference they make, it's really special."

KeyVonna Taylor, a Heritage High School/Saginaw Valley State University Early College student, also says FORCE has been a positive part of her life.

"FORCE has granted me a chance to participate in a variety of community service projects over the years," Taylor says. "These projects allowed me to help others in numerous ways, from helping those less fortunate than myself to interacting with little kids."

FORCE is part of the Saginaw Community Foundation. Since 1984, the SCF has helped Saginaw County residents build their community by linking donor interests with the needs of the area. SCF is a collection of endowment funds contributed by people from all walks of life who want to give something back. FORCE is just one example of a way SCF helps members of the Saginaw community.

"Being part of FORCE has opened my eyes to what a difference SCF makes in our community," says Sarah Wallace, of Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy. "Working with other students across the county has provided me the opportunity to establish new friendships and enhance my leadership skills, which will be so important in my college years and beyond."
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