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CPS teacher turns to crowd-funding to bring hockey to inner-city children

By Melanie Zanona@mzanona

For RedEye

October 31, 2013

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The United Center may be home to the Stanley Cup champions, but some inner-city kids in Chicago have never even heard of the Blackhawks, let alone held a hockey stick in their hands.

Teacher Christopher Hennessy of Haines Elementary School is working to change that, through a fundraising website called DonorsChoose.org.

"Most public schools do not even have enough money for many essential items," said Hennessy, who is using DonorsChoose.org for the first time and plans on using it again. "When a teacher has a vision to do something beyond these basic necessities, they usually pay for them out of their own pocket."

Budget cuts in Chicago Public Schools have affected everything from teachers to toilet paper, and extracurricular programs are no exception. But many teachers, including Hennessy, are now seeking alternative routes to get funding for sports, arts and music through sites like DonorsChoose.org, a digital donation platform for classroom projects around the country.

"DonorsChoose lets teachers open a door that, unfortunately, a lot of schools aren't allowing right now," said James Walter Doyle, director of teacher engagement for DonorsChoose.org. "For the first time in a long time, it has put instruction back in the teachers own hands."

DonorsChoose.org--founded in 2000 by former Bronx school teacher Charles Best--is a nonprofit organization that allows donors to help fund various classroom projects in public schools around the country. Teachers can request anything from basic materials to trips abroad for their students. Once enough money is raised, DonorsChoose.org will purchase the requested materials and send them directly to the school in order to ensure funds are not misused.

"When I was a teacher, I found myself using my own money for things that you would think are essential," said Doyle, who taught in Harlem. "I used DonorsChoose.org for seven years, and it was a life-saver. It shows that inner-city, low-income kids are just as capable of learning as everyone else."

Teachers and students are responsible for raising awareness about their classroom projects, but many times donations are made randomly; potential donors can peruse any project on the website by location, category or level of urgency.

But fundraising can still be difficult for teachers, which is why First Friday LLC, an events organization in Chicago, decided to team up with DonorsChoose.org to host social fundraisers for a new classroom project every month.

"I wanted to incorporate a nonprofit aspect into all these events I was doing," said Jordan Russum, founder of First Friday. "Young people don’t have the money to go to big galas, so this is a good way for them to help a local nonprofit."

First Friday hosts a fundraiser every month at a bar or club in the city, where a portion of proceeds will go directly to a different classroom project in Chicago. Russum elected DonorsChoose.org as the company's nonprofit because he liked the freedom to pick new projects each month and the ability to see directly where the funds were being used.

In order to make it easier to pool funds for the classroom project, Russum has turned to another group-funding website called Crowdtilt.

"Crowdtilt is not just for social events. We have also seen a lot of people fundraising for a good cause," said Mike Duboe of Crowdtilt. "More people will chip in if it’s easy. A lot of school fundraisers still only accept cash or checks, but you can use a credit card with Crowdtilt."

Crowdtilt was recently used to group-fund private police protection in Oakland, Calif., after an uptick in violence, but Duboe said he has seen an increase in the number of education-related fundraisers, such as the First Friday events.

The Nov. 1 First Friday at the Debonair Social Club, featuring a four-hour open bar and DJ set from The Jane Doze for $60, in part addresses Hennessey’s request. A portion of the night's proceeds will go to his class, which is using DonorsChoose to raise money for a floor hockey set in order to expose the students to a sport they otherwise would not have access to.

"Many of my students had never played hockey before and I wanted them to experience the thrill of it," Hennessy said. "With the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup last year, it created enough attention about the sport that some of the students began to at least take an interest in it. I figured I would capitalize on that interest and introduce the sport to them."

Russum said he tries to pick projects that are relevant or will spark young people's interest. Last month he picked an opera-in-the-classroom project, and this month he picked hockey, which is close to his and many Chicagoans' hearts.

"I grew up in L.A. playing hockey, and I had to switch school districts just to play," Russum said. "I know not everyone is lucky enough to be able do that, so I wanted to see low-income students have the same opportunity."

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