It sounds at first like a typical assignment for a high school English class. Students at Belmont Hill School are asked to think of someone they encounter in their daily lives who might need a financial boost and record a short video essay about them and why they’re important in their lives. Then comes the unusual part: some of the students will be provided a $1,000 check to give to the person they select.
The money comes from an unusual philanthropic project called VING, run by the Lefkofsky Family Foundation. The program is national, and anyone aged 14 to 18 can nominate someone to get this thousand dollar check that the teen then has to deliver. It has been running for a few years, and every year, the foundation gives out hundreds of these checks, totaling nearly a million dollars over the course of the effort.
Students who are accepted are sent a check to deliver to the recipient, and are asked to have a friend come along as they deliver it and film the surprise gift with a cellphone camera. The videos all appear on the VING YouTube channel, and sometimes local TV news crews tag along as well.
The students are typically nervous, and the recipients are typically confused about the whole concept and elated to learn that this student took the trouble to seek out this funding for them, says Charlie Doar, a teacher at Belmont Hill, an all-male private school just outside of Boston, who was one of the first teachers to make it a yearly part of his course.
So is this just some sort of gimmick or publicity stunt? And what impact does it have to turn a teenager into a sudden philanthropist for a day?
We tackle those questions on this week’s EdSurge Podcast. We connected with Doar, and also with Liz Lefkofsky, founder of the VING project and president of the Lefkofsky Family Foundation, to talk about what they’ve learned from the effort—especially during the stress of the global pandemic.
“It has just been such a difficult year for so many people,” said Lefkofsky. “And that these kids were given an opportunity to do something good during this most difficult time has really just been awe inspiring.”
She said she knows that the $1,000 won’t fix any long term or systemic issues in the lives of those getting the money, though her foundation does other, more-traditional giving to deal with larger issues.
“And I wish I could fix all of [their problems],” she said, but the $1,000 seemed like “the right number coming from a teenager to an adult.”
The focus is to inspire the students to see those around them more fully and to think about how they can help others, even when they don’t have someone bankrolling a cash gift.
A friend of Lefkofsky said she heard of a young person recently who saw a man sitting outside in a wheelchair near Coney Island asking for money during a rainstorm. The young man got out of his car to give the person a golf umbrella, saying the wheelchair-bound man needed it more than he did.
“It doesn’t have to be the thousand dollars,” she added. “We’re talking to teenagers and teaching them a moment of empathy.”
Hear the full episode—including tape of students giving surprise checks to someone in need. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.