Helping students and schools make a difference in their communities is at the heart of a clean energy grant initiative implemented by the M&M Area Community Foundation (MMACF) — a nonprofit serving Marinette and Menominee counties.
Founded in 1994, the MMACF is unusual in that it serves two counties in two states — Menominee County is in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. While it works in several areas, its clean energy grant initiative sets it apart, says Executive Director Paula Gruszynski.
Fulfilling the grant required a three-pronged approach: community engagement, school energy audits and teacher education, she says.
In the foundation’s efforts to be proactive in the communities it serves, this initiative checked all the boxes. In addition to raising the organization’s profile, the MMACF partnered with schools to conduct Level 1 audits, which meant working with energy providers and building supervisors and then providing funds for improvements, asking schools to match those.
“It was encouraging and a sign they were interested,” Gruszynski says. “The foundation took the lead on this and was the catalyst. All the superintendents were willing to take that time.”
In addition, the MMACF trained and provided lesson plans and curriculums to middle school teachers in 15 districts to help students learn about clean energy.
“Superintendents were very clear that was a priority for them — to give (teachers) something useful,” says Gruszynski, a former teacher. “I understand the importance of small community schools and how they are the heart of the community.”
The clean energy initiative was a way to “understand what the needs are and going forcefully” to address them. And not only did that message impact the superintendents and staff, it filtered down to the students.
Gruszynski shares two stories from students. In one, a student called the program “incredible,” adding that the work started in the classroom would help “change the world.” In another, a boy who lived on a farm in Peshtigo said his family’s water heater went out. He talked with his dad about solar energy, which they now use.
“(The student) learned about it because of the leadership of our foundation,” Gruszynski says. “It was tear-jerking. It validated the appetite for the schools to do these kinds of things.”
Getting students involved is a core part of the MMACF. The foundation established a Youth Advisory Committee in 1996. The Youth Field of Interest Fund began from a challenge grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
The Youth Field of Interest Fund provides grants to a variety of youth programs in the area. Members of the advisory committee, all between the ages of 12 and 21, select YAC representatives who sit on the full foundation board with voting rights.
Collaboration is another core foundation value — whether that’s with local organizations or other community foundations, Gruszynski says. Earlier this year, the MMACF joined with several other community foundations to share resources, address common concerns, and identify actions and policies that will protect common water resources.
Called the “Resilient Future Project,” the collaboration seeks to build a community of civic and municipal leaders with the vision and drive to identify and implement strategies to better prepare for severe storm events.
Future fund helps kids
Who doesn’t like — or need — free money? The foundation’s new initiative, Future Fund, is a commitment to the future kindergarten students in Marinette and Menominee counties. Starting with the 2019-20 school year, each kindergartner in public, private, virtual and home schools will receive $50, which cannot be accessed until high school graduation.
“We believe you have a future and you have a choice,” Gruszynski says. “Our Future Fund is modeled after Children’s Savings Accounts, which have been established in 65 communities across the United States. The program will be the first in the country to cover all kindergarten students in two counties in different states.”
Such funds are usually the purview of municipalities, but the M&M board of directors spent two years researching similar funds before launching its own, Gruszynski says.
Under the program, at the start of the school year, the foundation will establish a $50 deposit-only savings account at a local financial institution for each kindergarten student. The Future Fund accounts will grow with additional deposits from the foundation during the students’ K-12 school career as well as interest earned on the accounts. A Parents Future Fund allows parents to add to the account as well. The funds cannot be accessed until after graduation.
“For us, the biggest impact is the financial literacy and the incentives that go throughout their school career,” Gruszynski says.
“This is not a scholarship fund,” she continues, adding that it’s a way to keep up financial knowledge throughout school and think ahead to opportunities.
The M&M Area Community Foundation is collaborating with the Community Foundation of Marquette County, Community Foundation of the Upper Peninsula and Delta County, Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation and Keweenaw Community Foundation to improve the health and wellbeing of Great Lakes communities. The groups are looking at implementing more effective flood defenses and assessing risks and vulnerabilities that come from extreme weather.