‘Experiencing Philanthropy’ Seminar Awards $10K Grant to Lowell’s Teen BLOCK Program

Four people pose for a photo while standing in front of a wall with the words "Teen BLOCK" Image by Ed Brennen
Honors College students Amanda Joly, second from left, and Colin Wildman were part of the 'Experiencing Philanthropy' honors seminar that awarded a $10,000 grant to Teen BLOCK, much to the delight of Youth Programs Manager Monica Veth, right, and Youth Outreach Reengagement Coordinator Tim Sokhoeun, left.

By Ed Brennen

You don’t need the bank account of an Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates to be a philanthropist.

That’s one of students’ biggest takeaways from “Experiencing Philanthropy,” an honors seminar that explores how nonprofit organizations and community foundations operate — and tasks students with selecting a local nonprofit to receive a $10,000 grant.

“The course made me realize that you don’t have to have a ton of money to be philanthropic,” says Amanda Joly, a junior meteorology and atmospheric science major. “Just giving your time and energy can make a big difference.”

Started in 2020 by former Honors College Dean Jim Canning, Experiencing Philanthropy is a partnership between UML and the Greater Lowell Community Foundation (GLCF), with each contributing $5,000 to the annual grant. The seminar is taught in the fall by Deborah Finch, an emeritus associate teaching professor of marketing, entrepreneurship and innovation in the Manning School of Business.

Students in last semester’s seminar awarded the $10,000 grant to Teen BLOCK, a youth development program run by the Lowell Community Health Center.

“It means a lot to us,” says Teen BLOCK Youth Programs Manager Monica Veth, who adds that the money will allow the organization to bring back mental health-related “expressive art activities,” such as acting, improv and poetry, that were cut during the pandemic.

At the beginning of the semester, students decide on an issue to address with the grant. GLCF Vice President of Marketing, Programs and Strategy Jennifer Aradhya then helps them identify local nonprofits that do work in that area. After narrowing the list of organizations down to three, students divide into teams and conduct site visits to learn more about the nonprofits. Each team then makes a presentation about its organization to the class before the students vote for a grant-winner.

Three people chat in a hallway that is lined with student artwork Image by Ed Brennen
Honors students Amanda Joly, left, and Colin Wildman visit with Teen BLOCK Youth Programs Manager Monica Veth at the program's headquarters in downtown Lowell.
Past recipients include the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence and Center for Hope and Healing (which shared the grant in 2020) and the Discovery Museum in Acton, Massachusetts.

Joly, a transfer student from Rhode Island, teamed up with sophomore mechanical engineering major Colin Wildman and sophomore business major Alexa Grazio on Teen BLOCK.

“There’s a lot of great organizations in Lowell that help a lot of people, so it was a really hard decision,” says Joly, who was struck by the welcoming atmosphere at Teen BLOCK, where guests are greeted by a “You Are Loved” sign and student artwork lines the walls.

“I love the fact that they work indirectly with mental health, because some people don’t feel comfortable addressing mental health directly,” says Joly, who plans to volunteer with the program. “It’s a safe space for teens after school where they can get homework help, have a sounding board and find a place to be creative.”

Wildman, a native of Saugus, Massachusetts, says he took Experiencing Philanthropy to build a better connection with the Lowell community.

“As an Eagle Scout, I know how it feels to make a difference for others,” says Wildman, who found it “inspiring” to award the grant to Teen BLOCK. “We were able to help a program that changes lives and puts smiles on teens' faces, which is incredible.”

Veth, who has been with the Lowell Community Health Center for 15 years, appreciates the opportunity for Teen BLOCK participants to connect with UMass Lowell students.

“Even though the university is in their city, sometimes there’s a disconnect. They don’t always have an opportunity to visit or learn more about the school,” she says. “Having this kind of relationship is important.”

In addition to hearing from leaders in the nonprofit community, students present what they learned in the seminar to the GLCF board of directors.

“I hope the course helps students become more comfortable seeing themselves as members of a board of directors or volunteering for nonprofits in their community,” says Finch, who has been involved with several local nonprofits, including the Lowell Association for the Blind, the Pollard Memorial Library Foundation and the Paul E. Tsongas Civic Arena Commission.

Grazio, who is from Haverhill, Massachusetts, took the seminar because she was interested in learning more about the business practices of philanthropic organizations. She enjoyed the hands-on nature of the course — and learning that it’s never too early to start giving back.

“I assumed that the only ones who could participate in philanthropy were millionaires, but this class taught me that philanthropy is for everyone,” she says. “It has inspired me to get involved in my community and participate in anything I can do to improve the welfare of others.”