Good Cents for Oakland

Find a Penny, Pick It Up

By Laura Novak
Photography by Phyllis Christopher

It was a made-for-TV moment, the kind we don’t hear about often enough. Only this life-altering event for one Oakland family is changing the face of philanthropy across the city.
    In November 2004, Montclair mom and securities executive Dagmar Serota was watching Reading Rainbow on public television with her son, Kyle, who was then 4 and home sick with a flu. Much to her surprise, a segment on homeless school children riveted Kyle. The show highlighted a program in New York City called Common Cents New York where children collect pennies to benefit local charities.
    Serota took a break from explaining to Kyle why some children don’t have homes only long enough to call the East Coast nonprofit to learn how she might start a similar program in Oakland. Six months later Good Cents for Oakland was born, and Serota and her program have been rewriting the script ever since on how to empower Oakland’s school children to help their own community.
    “I think that community service becomes really meaningful when it comes from the hearts of the children,” Serota says. “We’re trying to take community service out of the extraordinary and into the ordinary. We want the children to look locally and to know that they can help every single day.”
Good Cents for Oakland is centered on the old fashioned idea of kids going door-to-door in their neighborhood to collect spare change. But it’s what happens after the children lug their sagging tote bags back to school on Monday morning that has set the program apart from the holiday food drives and disaster relief collections.
    “This particular project involved the students in making the decision of where the funds will be directed. So the children are the drivers from beginning to end,” says Linda Lu, principal of Joaquin Miller Elementary School, where Good Cents was piloted in the second-grade classrooms earlier this year. “And that’s without a lot of adult intervention. So it is really empowering our students.”
    Serota relied on her 18-year financial career and experience on the boards of several nonprofit organizations to frame Good Cents. She designed it to be a program that would provide educators with fresh methods for teaching math, language and social lessons while also fine-tuning the students’ organizational and communication skills. In turn, the schools’ efforts need to benefit the local community while offering the children the choice of how and where.
    The first official Good Cents for Oakland Penny Roundup Program took place at the Duck’s Nest Preschool on Piedmont Avenue in April 2005. One hundred children participated and raised $1,500 in pennies and coins that they directed to the Alameda County Food Bank and St. Mary’s Center preschool and emergency food center where up to one-third of the children are homeless. This year, Good Cents raised $6,700 for five Oakland charities. Serota estimates 250 children across Oakland participated.
    In the elementary grades, students are asked to research an issue and then interview prospective recipients. Serota recalls how the children at Emerson Elementary School chose gun violence because it was an issue that had touched almost every one of their lives. Good Cents invited five nonprofits for interviews with the children who then had to make in-class presentations about what they learned before they selected a recipient.
    “The really powerful thing about the elementary school program is that it’s 100 percent about the children,” Serota says. “We call them life skills, and we are teaching the kids that they can be leaders.”
In January three kindergarten and pre-k schools are launching the program, and four elementary programs are on board, extending Good Cents’ reach to 1,000 children. There is room for three more schools.
But already the demand has begun to outstrip even Serota’s boundless energy. So she has partnered with YEAH, the Young Entrepreneur at Haas program at U.C. Berkeley’s business school, to provide mentors for younger kids in two of Good Cents after school classes.
    The infusion of support will be welcome respite for Serota who can often be found writing grant proposals at 2 a.m. while her husband and Kyle are asleep. But her commitment to provide Good Cents to Oakland schools for free is unwavering.
    “Our resources are tight as it is,” says Lu. “And if we were providing funding for a charity and to had to pay overhead, it would really inhibit what we could do.”
    Serota’s goal is to have the name Good Cents for Oakland become a part of the lexicon in every Oakland classroom. And she might be on to something. After all, according to the age-old saying, good luck is ours if we find a penny and pick it up.
    “If we could get every child in Oakland to look at a penny and to think that that penny could turn into a good cent for Oakland and it could turn into something that helps the community, then our job is done.” 

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