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December 17, 2006

Searching for that Fairy Godmother Feeling

Kelly's column is reprinted here with permission from The Hills Newspapers.

You know how sometimes it’s really hard to feel integrated with the larger world? How you want to make a meaningful contribution but the little things, like bagging up canned food for the local drive, don’t seem to add up to much? Or how, when you’re writing checks to charities, you get that little high looking at the pictures in the brochure but twenty minutes later the high is gone and you wonder if there isn’t a way to get more connection for your philanthropic investment?

I found a way.

At least, it’s working for me. It’s called Donors Choose and it’s one of those brilliant applications of the web that leave you wondering how we ever survived without it.

Teachers--that underpaid, overtaxed lot to which we assign our most important work--write up three or four paragraphs about something they need to make magic happen in their classroom, or even just give their students a fighting chance to learn anything. It’s all there—from basics like textbooks and staplers to elective supplies, like recorders and basketballs. And it’s searchable by subject, by location, by grade.

I sorted first by Art & Music Projects, where I quickly stumbled upon Mrs. Dien, an elementary school teacher down in LA. She’s leading a field trip to see Dan Zanes perform in April. Dan Zanes is a storyteller and musician and my girls love him, especially his Polly Wolly Doodle duet with Sheryl Crow. Now, no one could say a Dan Zanes show is something students need to succeed in life. But as I read the second paragraph, I learned that the entire student body is going, except the special needs kids. For them to go, the school would need to rent a bus with a lift, which costs $382.53 a day, including gas, insurance and the driver’s pay. So I picked up the tab. Come April 2007, those special needs kids will be humming alongside their luckier schoolmates.

The next week, I got this note:

Dear Kelly and Edward,

Thank you very much for funding the bus for our students to see Dan Zanes at UCLA Performing Arts Center. My special students have a difficult time learning academic subjects, but one area that they all enjoy and can relate to is music and story telling. Thank you for making this possible. We will be sending our thank you letters and pictures of our trip after we attend the performance in April 2007.

Thank you,
Michelle Dien

It was better than finding the perfect sweater to go with the brown skirt I bought last year and never wear because, well, I don’t have the perfect sweater to go with it.

High on the Michelle Dien letter, I went back to Donors Choose. This time, I found a high school in Chicago where 92% of the students are on free lunch. A Geometry teacher there was asking for $322.81 to buy a manipulatives kit that he is sure will help his students finally understand geometry. One click, and I had solved the problem.

It’s a little problem, I know, and there’s another problem right behind it. And sure, it’s just one set of tools for one set of kids. But before I went too far in that direction, I got another letter:

Dear Kelly and Edward,

My students and I cannot thank you enough for your generous donation to our classroom. When I informed my students of your generous gift, they were all incredibly ecstatic and astounded that someone from outside their community truly cared about their education. They were also very eager to start using the materials to help them learn geometry in new and innovative ways. Once again, thank you very much.


Vinay Mullick
Paul Robeson High School

With $322, I made some kids in Chicago “ecstatic.” I “astounded” them. I showed them that people they don’t know care about what happens to them. And Vinay gave me his email, so I can check in any time. Now that’s the connection I was hoping for.

Donors Choose is online at

December 05, 2006

The Noey Effect

Kelly’s column is represented here with permission from The Hills Newspapers.

My seventeen
year-old babysitter, Noey, doesn’t know how to work our TiVo, nor does she want to know.

Noey is an industrious first-generation American with her eyes on Stanford. She studies all the time. Doesn’t care what time we get home since by her calculations, she’s getting paid to prep for the SATs and finish her AP Chemistry homework. Every time she comes, she asks if it’s okay to use my computer. “Just checking,” she says when I say “Of course, Noey.” “Thanks a lot,” she adds, in a tone so genuine it makes me wonder if my kids have ever sincerely thanked me for anything.

Noey, I should mention, is fit for the cover of a magazine. She has the kind of face that makes some girls stop trying and just coast along on the perks that come with show-stopping beauty. I keep telling her she could make money a whole lot faster than $12 an hour if she was willing to send a couple photos off to the nearest modeling agency.

But that’s not her style. She wants to be a doctor.

Noey’s parents are Nicaraguan immigrants who work as Custodial Managers at UC Berkeley. They found a high school for her in Albany, even though it’s five towns north of their home, because it’s the kind of high school that sends its graduates to college. When Noey matriculates, she will be the first in her family to walk the halls of a freshman dorm looking for her name on a door, or comb through a university bookstore filling a basket with $400 worth of textbooks, or harbor a secret crush on the guy in Chem Lab.

But that’s where Noey is headed.

When I ask her why college is so important, she says, “That’s why my parents came here. That’s why they left everything behind.”

When I was seventeen, I could be found in front of the mirror, wondering if my hair looked better in French braids or a bun and rolling my eyes at my mother who was always calling up to me to “Get downstairs now!” When I was finally satisfied with my locks, I’d slip on my Mia flats, noting the scuffs on the toes and wishing for a fresh pair. I rarely said thank you spontaneously and was quick to remind my mom, in our regular showdowns, that at least I wasn’t pregnant or on drugs. It wasn’t pretty.

And my girls – they are the luckiest kids in America. Piles of books in every room. So many clothes that when they’re all clean, they don’t fit in the dresser. Soccer, choir, summer camp. Trips to the circus, the beach, the Big Apple. And perhaps the ultimate luxury: a well-rested, at-home mom, not to mention a father who can’t wait to get home to them.

But there are things Noey has that I can’t give my children. There are advantages to “disadvantage.” Noey appreciates a Coke. She saves the last bit of cream cheese because if you really scrape around the sides, there’s enough for another bagel. She found an SAT course that is half the cost as Kaplan, but just as good. She’s more resourceful and self-sufficient than some forty year-olds I know.

But she has one more thing I wish for my kids—the thing that makes the world her oyster. Noey has the pride and the insight of the entrepreneur, the person who takes an idea about what could be and makes it real. She came by her daring and will honestly, through her parents.