Giving a group of 18 high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors three months and $25,000 to form a youth grant-making committee might sound crazy, but that’s what the Youth Community Initiative at the Greater Worcester Foundation has been doing for 19 years - and it works.

Since the program’s inception in 1999, over 200 students from across Worcester County have served on YCI’s grant-making committees, awarding more than $300,000 to 75 nonprofit organizations in Worcester County. The YCI is the only youth grant-making committee in Worcester County without ties to any school or school district.

Last year, the committee received 33 applications requesting over $100,000. With only a quarter that amount available, the 18 student committee members had to make a lot of tough decisions. But Program Officer Sarah Shugrue said this year’s team was up to the challenge.

“There’s so much that affects young people in our community and so often they are not at the table when decisions are being made that affect them,” Shugrue pointed out. “So often you hear, ‘Well, they’re young, they don’t know,’ but young people know it, especially when it comes to things that affect them. They have an opinion, they have a strong voice, and what’s special about these young people is they’re using that voice and being empowered.”

The 2018 YCI committee awarded grants to organizations ranging from the Main South Community Development Corporation to fund a community concert featuring student musicians from high schools across Worcester, to Quinsigamond Community College to help fund a sex education course for Gateway to College students at the school.

Establishing a grant-making committee is no easy feat, especially for a group of teenagers. The YCI is a two-year program, with meetings that run weekly, three hours each, from September to December. That’s not to mention the after-hours work these students put in because they have so much passion for their work.

“In 12 weeks time, not only do they become friends and have all this fun, but they do a scan in their community to identify gaps in services,” said Shugrue. “They develop a request for proposals that meet the criteria for their three areas of interest. They develop an application and evaluation criteria, and then they get applications, present them to each other, individually they score them online, and then they have to reach consensus.”

Long story short? It’s a lot of work.

Gabriel Cohen, 18, is currently a senior at Wachusett Regional High School in Holden and one of the final candidates competing for a full scholarship to the Illinois Institute of Technology. When Cohen learned about YCI from his dad, who works at the Greater Worcester Foundation, he jumped at the chance to apply for a spot.

“Initially, it was a college application thing for me,” Cohen said, laughing a little at his own honesty. “But as I learned more about the program and began participating in the actual process I started to realize the impact we were making. I thought, ‘Wow this is something.’ This is something that could have a real effect on the community.”

The main criteria for awardees this year? Chosen applications had to clearly demonstrate “youth voice,” according to Cohen and Shugrue. This means the organization applying for the grant had to do more than provide youth services - youths had to be involved in the organization and its programs in a meaningful way to qualify.

“To [the committee] that meant no decisions without youth voice,” said Shugrue. “Youth voice isn’t just a program for youth. Youth voice, like with the sex ed program [for Gateway students at Quinsigamond Community College], is students saying ‘we need this, we want this.’ Even though an instructor will be running the course, it was young people saying, ‘we need it.’”

It’s not just the organizations awarded grants that benefit from this program. The students that participate in the program gain important professional skills through their work at the YCI, learning to be confident, respectful team-players. Business attire is required at meetings, and committee members are expected to be prepared, proactive, and ready to work together every time they show up.

Former YCI member Isabella Corazzini, now a freshman at Goucher College, said these expectations prepared her to work in a professional setting. Corazzini feels that the YCI taught her to be straightforward and assertive, as well as receptive to the concerns of those with experiences different than her own.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity,” said Corazzini, who went on to found the Worcester Youth movement, a youth led and organized group that aims to educate marginalized communities of young people. “It wasn’t until I had these interactions that I realized I came in with a vastly different experience than everyone else. Going to YCI, you have to step into the shoes of people you don’t know and kind of do some soul-bearing stuff.”

Shugrue echoed this sentiment.

“Since the program is open to all of Worcester County, it gives these kids opportunity to expand their network in ways they don’t usually get. There were 13 different high schools represented this year from Worcester County.”

The 2018 committee was comprised of 18 student members: Esther Adu, Ian Gachunga, Megan Nguyen, Livia Skende, Kristen Amoah, Devin Kelly, Chelsea Ofosuware, Alyvia Vancelette, Skyler Campanale, Michelle Kim, Ariel Rodriguez, Nayerique Ventura, Gabriel Cohen, Alexis Koduah, Kaiya Saunders, Erin Denis, Yunji Lee, and Himasri Shapally. The students were advised by Program Officer Sarah Shugrue and Program Assistant Maggie Sullivan, a sophomore at Clark University.

Students interested in participating in the Youth Community Initiative can find more information here. Applications for the 2019 session open in April of this year.