Sixteen years ago, a four-year-old girl and her father were walking down the street when they encountered a homeless man. Aghast at the man's misfortune, the girl asked her father if they could take him home.
She didn't know it then, but that one moment of concern would catapult her to two appearances on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" a chance to meet former president Bill Clinton, years of community service — and a whole lot of penny-collecting.
The little girl was Nora Gross '08, who, along with her father, Teddy Gross, founded the nonprofit organization Penny Harvest. Part of the larger umbrella organization they also founded called "Common Cents," the Penny Harvest — which Winfrey has cited as the inspiration for her Angel Network charity — aims to involve students in community service by having them go door-to-door collecting pennies for charity.
The Grosses' association with Winfrey began in 1994, when they landed an invitation to come on her show and describe how they collected over $1,000 in pennies to donate to various organizations. Their story inspired Winfrey to launch her own charity organization in 1997.
"I started thinking, if you could do that, I wonder what I could do?" Winfrey wrote on her website.
On Sept. 4, 13 years after their first appearance on Winfrey's show, Nora and her father again appeared on the program to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the charity they helped to inspire. The two appeared on the show with Clinton, whom they met during the appearance and who discussed his own charitable efforts.
The Angel Network, which has raised more than $50 million and has funded 60 new schools in 13 countries, spearheads projects including the distribution of new uniforms, shoes and school supplies to children in Africa and supports community-based organizations to help parentless children. It also provides for disadvantaged children in regions where books recommended by Oprah's Book Club are set. Nora said she is "flattered" that Winfrey credits her as the inspiration for the Angel Network, but noted that it has a different focus than her and her father's organization. "It doesn't emphasize education and giving kids a prominent role the way Common Cents does," she said.
"Seeing the way this kind of program can get to kids that are so young and put something inside them," she added, is a rewarding aspect of her efforts. "I think there's a kind of compassion and activity in young people that goes away as you get older and more jaded. Common Cents harvests that activity and prevents you from losing it."
Common Cents' most popular and best-known program is the Penny Harvest. Its other programs include the Student Community Action Fund, a high-school leadership council, and Near Peer, a mentoring program.
Teddy Gross marveled that his and his daughter's desire to help others has mushroomed into such a wide-ranging endeavor. "It's kind of humbling to know that you never know where life will take you and what contribution you will make to other people's lives," he said. "It's surprising, it's delightful and it's a little strange too."
As the largest child philanthropy program in the United States, the Penny Harvest attracts nearly 500,000 young participants from New York City schools and hundreds from Seattle and upstate New York. In addition to its famed door-to-door penny collecting, Penny Harvest spearheads "Wheel of Caring assemblies," in which students, teachers, parents and staff work together to complete the "25 Sack Challenge": filling 25 sacks of pennies, which together weigh about 750 pounds.
Students also perform other tasks for their neighborhoods, from revitalizing public gardens to teaching English to immigrants, and often collaborate with other community groups.
This holiday season, the Penny Harvest will partition off a rectangle 30 feet wide and a block long under the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. For three weeks, the "penny field" will display all the pennies that children in New York City have collected this fall, a total that Nora expects to be "close to a $1 million."
"Kids are sort of the smallest denominator and undervalued in terms of people not thinking they can do anything," Nora said. "Pennies are sort of the same way. It is a coin that nobody really misses. It seems like people are happy to get rid of [the pennies] and especially happy if they know that they're going to good use."
Nora, who is an art history major and a staff photographer for The Daily Princetonian, said she does not like to take credit for starting Penny Harvest, adding that her question about helping a homeless man was not unusual for a child to ask. Her father, she said, took the initiative to address the issue behind her question, which led to the founding of the organization.
Teddy Gross said the program helps not only those who receive the money it collects, but also those who help collect it, noting that many participants are public school students in the "toughest neighborhoods in the country, where kids are undervalued."
"We're talking about kids who are growing up in schools where they're routinely being told they don't have a future, they don't have anything to contribute, they're not important, they can't make a difference," he said.
"This program shows them that they do matter, that they can make a difference. It puts a ladder in front of them and gives them steps to take."
Despite her busy schedule at Princeton, Nora has continued her involvement in community service, doing volunteer photography work for Common Cents over the summer and interviewing elementary and middle-school students involved in the Penny Harvest program.
"I'm most impressed by the way the organization has grown and how it has become an educational program, not just a fundraiser," she said. "It gives me confidence that a little idea, if someone is willing to nurture it, can become a legitimate national organization."
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