Sunday, May 25, 2008

New column every Monday: June 9, 2008

The Miami Herald
Posted on Sun, May. 25, 2008
Web charities help teachers equip classrooms

Elana Militzok started the school year at Oakland Park Elementary with a bare kindergarten classroom -- and a secret weapon to fill it.

By spring, the room was teeming with brightly colored educational toys, art supplies, markers, puzzles, writing journals, recess equipment and books. The supplies, worth thousands of dollars, came from strangers who saw Militzok's pleas for funding on a website called
''You can be a great teacher, but unless you have the materials to teach with, it's hard,'' Militzok said.

On the site, educators write detailed proposals about items they need and explain how they will be used. Online philanthropists can fund a portion or all of the project, and the charity buys the supplies and ships them to the school. All donors get an e-card from the teacher, and those who give more than $100 or who give the last amount to fulfill the need get photos and handwritten thank-you cards from students and the teacher.

Donors have fulfilled 11 projects for Militzok's class this year.

At a time when school budgets are tight, educators say the website -- which received the highest rating from Charity Navigator -- provides an opportunity to give students resources that schools, parent groups and the teachers themselves couldn't afford. All donations to are tax deductible.

Founder Charles Best, a former teacher in the Bronx, was frustrated by the meager resources available when he and colleagues came up with the idea more than seven years ago.
''Most of us would spend our own money on basic copy paper and pencils,'' said Best, 32. ``For the most part, we saw our students going without the materials they needed for a good education.''

The site was first available only to New York City public school teachers, then spread to a handful of states. It expanded to the rest of the country in the fall; so far, Florida teachers have received about $165,000 worth of goods from donors in 38 states.

By early May, 95 proposals had been funded in Miami-Dade for almost $36,000. In Broward, 27 had been funded for more than $8,300.

''There are so many things that we have to buy as teachers,'' said Melody Gutierrez, a Miami Park Elementary teacher who also uses the site. ``It's allowed me to do a lot more fun things and be more creative with my kids during lessons. It makes the classroom a nicer place.''
Thanks to the charity, Gutierrez has outfitted her second-grade classroom with a giant carpet that bears a map of the United States, seat covers that hold kids' books, a listening center so students can practice reading aloud, a Dr. Seuss library, miniature whiteboards for kids to write on and even pencils and crayons.

''The first day of school, we didn't have any good stuff,'' said 9-year-old Taurrian Stafford. But, he said, after Gutierrez went online and asked for supplies, ``we got a lot and a lot of new stuff and our room got good.''

The website has given Gutierrez, who like Militzok found out about the website while teaching in New York, the chance to talk to her students about giving.

Other sites, including and Miami-based, offer services similar to Experts say these organizations are examples of how online social interaction is connecting people with needs to those who want to help.
''It's another magical solution to some of the nation's persistent problems with inequity,'' said Claire Gaudiani, a professor of philanthropy and fundraising at the Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University. ``It's driven by the young generation, and that's a very good sign for America.''

She said the kids who receive the donated supplies ``are learning the power of generosity.''
Donors say they like being able to choose specific projects to fund, and getting feedback after students have received the supplies.

Wendy Cole, office manager at MBR Construction in Fort Lauderdale, said the family business has funded two proposals, including buying safety goggles for students to use in science class at Kelsey L. Pharr Elementary in Miami. The thank-you notes from the students were ''one of the greatest things about it,'' she said.

''They were so sweet and honest,'' Cole said. ``Truly, we all had tears in our eyes when we were reading the letters.''

Andrew Navratil is the Kelsey L. Pharr Elementary teacher who wrote the proposal for the safety goggles, which his students have since used many times.

''It makes you feel like somebody really cares about my school and my students because they chose our project,'' he said.

Militzok and Gutierrez, both former teachers in New York who moved to South Florida this school year -- have spread the word to their colleagues about the website, and several other teachers have since gotten supplies.

''Nobody really understood how incredible it was and how worth it it was until they saw me every day walking out of the office with huge boxes,'' Militzok said.

The children who learn the lesson of philanthropy aren't only recipients.

Matthew Nadel, a third-grader at Saint Andrew's School in Boca Raton, is allowed by his parents to pick a charity every month for a $100 donation. Recently, he split the money between a few projects on and got pictures and thank-you letters back.

''It made me feel like I was proud of myself that they really appreciated it,'' said Matthew, 9.
''It really brought home the message to my son that you're making a difference,'' said his father, Phil Nadel. ``You don't get that feedback with very many charities.''