Sept. 2, 2010 — -- A generous donor is helping tens of thousands of school kids in California with their back-to-school shopping.
Teachers and students across the state posted wish lists for everything from pencils and paper to digital projectors on the website DonorsChoose.org, and earlier this week, they learned that a foundation agreed to fund all of the requests statewide, worth some $1.3 million.
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Some 67,000 California students will be impacted by the donation, according to figures from DonorsChoose.org. The 2,233 projects from more than 1,000 teachers mostly requested either classroom supplies or technology.
Rebecca Fulop, a 10th-grade science teacher at Mission High School in San Francisco, was among those making requests. Fulop asked for three digital cameras for less than $600 that will allow her biology students to create stop-motion videos of cell animation.
"Without this funding, there really wouldn't be a way to do this project in this way," Fulop said, noting that her school can supply day-to-day material but could never fund this kind of technology. Now, she said, students could be using the cameras in her classroom in the next few weeks.
Hilda Yao, the woman behind the donation, said, "The reason I wanted to do it at the start of the school year is that it can set the tone for the entire year."
Yao administers the Claire Giannini Education Fund, named for the daughter of the founder of Bank of America. Claire Giannini Hoffman died in 1997, but she asked Yao and her late mother, Dorothy Yao, to succeed her as trustees of her foundation.
The $35 million fund looks for ways to help public education, in particular. While Yao has overseen large gifts to educational organizations in the past, this is the first time that a donation will go directly into classrooms.
"The beauty of what DonorsChoose does is that it allows teachers to post projects directly," said Yao, who selected the site based on her own research. "You're cutting out a lot of layers."
The donation comes at a particularly tough time for California's students and teachers. Faced with a budget crisis, state officials have made billions of dollars in cuts to public education.
Local school districts have been forced to pare spending dramatically. In Los Angeles alone, the city's school district faces a $640 million budget shortfall and has laid off 3,000 teachers.
"It's great to feel supported," said Laura Edeen, a teacher in the Monroe Elementary School in San Francisco, who had six projects funded, including requests for printers and bilingual software to help teach her students English.
Site Targets Small Donation for Big Impact
The impact of this $1.3 million donation is proof to Yao and the people behind DonorsChoose.org that small, direct donations can make a big difference in the education system.
"To reach 62,000 children would normally cost tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars," said Charles Best, the founder of the site.
Best founded DonorsChoose.org in 2000 based on his own experiences as a public school teacher in the Bronx.
"We would go into our own pockets to purchase copy paper and pencils," Best said. "We knew that that stuff would make a really big difference."
To help fund those expenses, individual donors -- or "citizen philanthropists" -- can log on to the site, pick a project, and give a donation as small as $1.
The site is organized to encourage teachers to ask for resources that "make the biggest difference for the fewest dollars," Best said.
Less expensive projects are more likely to be funded, and the website monitors teachers' posts to ensure that the requests go to help students and that donated money ends up in classrooms.
Yao's donation is one of the largest in the site's 10-year history, and it is the first time that a single donor has fully funded projects for an entire section of the country.
Besides helping California classrooms, Yao also hoped that her foundation's gift would encourage others to support public education.
Though Best couldn't attribute it solely to Yao's inspirational gift, he said that donation volume on DonorsChoose.org was "far larger" Wednesday from the site's citizen philanthropists.
"I think anybody that donates can see that they've made an impact. You don't have to be a millionaire," said Edeen. "Although it helps!"
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