A Bird’s Eye View of YouthBridge’s YEP STL! Program

The YEP STL! (Youth Engaged in Philanthropy) program, developed by YouthBridge Community Foundation of Greater St. Louis, recently awarded grants for 2024. This program, begun in the fall of 2016, is led by high school students from across the region who apply for the opportunity to participate. Once selected, the members handle all aspects of the grant process, aided by YouthBridge mentors as requested. The teens develop grant applications, review submissions, interview candidates, determine which agencies should receive funds, decide award amounts, and make award presentations.

To understand all aspects of the program, we chatted with a representative from each group involved with YEP STL!.

Program Founder/Host – YouthBridge Community Foundation:

The concept of a philanthropy program entirely led by high school students is quite unusual and is the reason it is so significant. According to Barbara Carswell, CEO of YouthBridge, “It is vitally important to get the next generation interested and involved in community issues.” A young person’s interest was actually how the program got started. Barbara explained that in 2016, a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis approached YouthBridge about starting a program similar to one at her local Community Foundation in Illinois. Always open to learning from community members, YouthBridge leadership leaned into the idea, and after garnering corporate sponsorship support, became fully committed to making YEP STL! a mainstay among its grant programs. Barbara acknowledges that, while exposure to examples of any topic is helpful, the truth is that passion is born as understanding and involvement grows. Seven years after awarding its first round of grants in spring of 2017, the program has proven that allowing young people who are interested in philanthropy to guide the process develops ownership and insight while nourishing their appreciation for contributing to their community.

Program Sponsor – First Bank:

When First Bank learned of YouthBridge’s idea to help teenagers run a grant program, the corporation eagerly jumped on board with financial support. Stacy Clay, Senior Vice President at First Bank and YouthBridge Board Member, expressed their viewpoint: “First Bank is committed to nurturing the leadership potential of young people through initiatives like YouthBridge’s YEP STL! program. Young people are provided with real-world experiences and the opportunity to engage with their community, helping them to develop essential leadership skills and instilling a sense of responsibility and civic duty.”

Stacy reiterated that First Bank is proud to sponsor YEP STL! — pleased that the program is not only beneficial for the teens involved but also for the broader St. Louis community and society as a whole.

YEP STL! Team Member:

Laci Walkenbach was starting her sophomore year in high school when she learned about the YEP STL! program. She had been interested in helping others for some time and fulfilled her service goals through volunteering and special projects at school. When she became aware of YEP STL! she immediately applied. Helping kids maximize their strengths while meeting other teens who held similar beliefs offered an exciting opportunity.

Laci explained that her tenure on the team was interesting, surprising, and extremely rewarding. Spirited discussions about the types of organizations they wanted to support revealed numerous ideas. Rather than being contentious, the different viewpoints led to effective collaboration and consensus. Team members were all surprised to learn of the number of existing charitable organizations providing services to the populations they identified. Yet despite the number of nonprofits, needs in the community continue to grow, in part because of lack of funds. Laci was pleased by the maturity level exhibited by her team. “It was refreshing to find kids with similar interests and similar desires to bring change,” she stated.

Summing up her experience, Laci said, “I learned how much positive impact our work has on people in our community. Knowing my work benefits others has had a positive impact on me, too, and it makes me want to stay involved in philanthropic projects.” When asked if she plans to apply next year, Laci said, “Oh yes! And I’m recruiting two others from my school.”

Grant Recipient:

Bob Ring, Treasurer and Board Member of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of St. Louis, was tasked with making the personal “pitch” to the YEP STL! committee after the CASA grant application was submitted. Bob is not new to this process but expressed his delight in the experience with this particular group. He was initially intrigued that the audience for his presentation would be high school students, and quickly discovered their professionalism. Bob began by explaining that he has been a CASA volunteer for seven years because it “allows him the ability to positively impact the lives of children who find themselves in the throes of the foster care system.” As he spoke to team members, Bob observed a range of responses. Some were highly enthusiastic and asked pointed questions, while others listened diligently, soaking in the information. In all cases, he detected complete interest and saw widening eyes as their understanding of the foster care program and the purpose of CASA and its processes grew.

Bob conveyed his admiration for the YEP STL! program and for the students participating. In his words, “This is an outstanding program. It allows the kids to learn about life ‘as they don’t know it’ and lets them broaden their perspective and learn what life can be like for the disadvantaged.” He also spoke of the value young people like these team members bring to the community since they represent the future of philanthropy. While Bob was gratified and honored to learn that CASA received a grant award, the funds were the icing on the cake. Meeting and networking with outstanding young citizens who are interested in all facets of the community was a refreshing, enlightening experience.

After viewing the program from all sides, we came to a firm conclusion: with teenagers like the YEP STL! team members, and with committed supporters like YouthBridge and First Bank, the future of philanthropy in the St. Louis area is in good hands.

Learn more about the program →