Students take a role in awarding grants to rural communities

In this September 2018 provided by Cheryl Senter, high school students Zachary Brown, left, Jonah Cote, and Jessie Church in Whitefield, N.H., discuss the distribution of $25,000 in grants to programs in northern New Hampshire and Vermont. (Cheryl Senter via AP)

By KATHY

McCORMACK

Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. — High school senior Zachary Brown already knows he wants to return to his hometown in northern Vermont after college. But he’s able to have a say about its future now.

Brown, 17, joined a new committee that’s allowing him and 10 other high school students in Vermont and New Hampshire to award grant money in an isolated region that’s still recovering from the loss of paper mill industry jobs on which it historically relied.

Brown’s from Canaan, Vermont, which saw a furniture manufacturer downsize nearly 10 years ago. The northeasternmost town in the state, with about 1,000 people, is bordered by Canada to the north and New Hampshire to the east.

Some of Brown’s peers at Canaan High School and in nearby towns want to leave the area in search of more opportunities; he wants to remain and help strengthen the community.

“It’s depressing to me to know that people don’t want to stay here,” said Brown, who plans to study business with a focus on accounting. “How are we supposed to make anything better if we’re just going to leave it?”

The students are working with staff of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation’s Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund, described as one of the largest permanent rural philanthropies in the nation. Since 2006, it has awarded more than $41 million to organizations in New Hampshire’s Coös County and surrounding areas. Neil Tillotson, who ran a rubber company in northern New Hampshire, left the bulk of his assets for charitable purposes after he died in 2001.

The students, who had to apply for the positions and give references, will recommend $25,000 from the fund to be distributed to nonprofits in the spring of 2019. They’ve been meeting for months to learn some of the complexities of philanthropy and study data about trends in the region, including the departure of young people.

A survey of Coos County youth over the last decade backed by the fund shows that many participants found they are unlikely to remain in their communities most of their lives; some felt they will never return. The research also shows that youth who believe their views matter to their community are more likely to think it’s important to live in the town where they grew up.

Kirsten Scobie, director of the fund, said the goal was to do what the research was saying. “How can we put young people in more places of decision-making, where their voices, ideas and perspectives are really heard by adults?”

The students decided that the grants will support environmental initiatives and programs that focus on reducing carbon emissions; increasing extracurricular activities for youth; and strengthening community engagement through events and public gatherings that enhance connection and togetherness.

Scobie said the long-term reinvestment in the region’s revitalization includes investing in its teens and young adults.

“When they feel that they’re heard, they’re more likely to think of this region as their permanent home,” she said.

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