If you had the chance to give $1,000 to someone in need, would you do it, and who would you help?
Vernon Hills High School students Serena Panos and Jack Brandl accepted the challenge and each knew someone who they thought could use the money.
For Panos, it was a neighbor she did not know well who struggled to pay for classes at College of Lake County and is now looking for a job. For Brandl, it was a student his age who struggled financially but never called attention to himself.
Convincing a nonprofit organization in a one-minute video why these people should receive the money was an effort that paid off for the recipients and for Panos and Brandl, both of Vernon Hills.
"It's a disservice to anyone in your life who could use this money to not take the time for just one minute to make the video," Brandl said.
Panos, who is 16, and Brandl, 18, were among eight Chicago-area children ages 14 to 18 who participated in a test program called the VING Project. Participants are asked to compile a one-minute video answering the question: "If I could give $1,000 to one person in need, who would it be?"
Jill McClain, director of the VING Project, said the nonprofit organization was started by an anonymous Chicago family who wanted to empower the next generation. Kicked off Nov. 1 to symbolize one-to-one giving, the goal also is to let youth -- perhaps for the first time -- be given the chance to help someone financially.
"This will be a unique and hopefully transformative experience to ring the doorbell and give someone a $1,000 check and get nothing in it for yourself other than the experience to say, 'I want to bless you with this money. I want you to keep going and I believe in you,'" McClain said.
Panos, a junior, and Brandl, a senior, learned about the VING Project after McClain spoke at their school. Brandl said getting involved was a no-brainer.
"It's nice they are putting influence in the hands of youth, because sometimes youth get a bad rap as being irresponsible or self-centered," Brandl said. "It's important adults value what youth have to say and who they feel deserves the money."
Choosing a person who should receive the money took some thought.
Panos' choice was 20-year-old Jhamaal Garrett. She didn't know him personally, but learned of him and his plight through a neighbor.
"It was scary because I was giving money to a total stranger. But knowing his background and his story, he was the most deserving person I could think of," she said.
Panos said she learned Jhamaal had lived with his grandfather for awhile until he died. Jhamaal put himself through high school and took classes at CLC and is now looking for a job. Homeless, he stayed with friends or lived in his car.
"It was so stunning that through everything, all his family trouble and not having any support, he finished school and he's trying to find a stable job," Panos said.
"Many people, when hardships strike, think it's easy to give up. He never stops, and I think he was more than deserving to get this money and show everything he's doing is important and he should keep going."
Brandl chose 17-year-old Octavio (because he is a minor, VING Project officials said they could not release his full name). They met in preschool, went to school together until fifth grade, then drifted apart. Brandl said he learned Octavio was homeless for a short time and has struggled financially, but he never showed it.
"I felt a little guilty because I grew up with him," Brandl said. "I felt I let him down because I was focusing on my goals and my aspirations through high school and I almost forgot about my roots and forgot about the people I grew up with."
Brandl said Octavio is inspirational.
"The guy is in my exact situation with less opportunity and privilege I've been blessed to have in my life. He still makes it work and keeps it together at school. He doesn't make a show about any of his needs and makes a name for himself as a hard worker," Brandle said.
About a month after submitting their videos, Panos and Brandl received emails saying they would be able to present Jhamaal and Octavio with $1,000 each. Panos said it was exciting to see Jhamaal's reaction and to share her experience with her friends.
"I shared that I won. And they asked, 'you won?' and I said, 'Well, I didn't win, but I won, but I didn't win,'" Panos said. "It was exciting. Everyone was confused, but everyone was smiling because they knew by my reaction something awesome was about to happen."
The next step was presenting the checks to Jhamaal and Octavio. To publicize the project, a camera crew accompanied them for the presentation. Meeting Jhamaal at her neighbor's house, Panos said she was scared and unsure how he would react.
"Seeing his reaction and the joy and how speechless he was, which I found out is impossible for him to be speechless, it was great," she said.
Presenting the check at school, Brandl said Octavio initially wanted to be anonymous. He requested filming from behind him and excluding his name. He eventually changed his mind.
"Octavio said it's a great organization and a lot of people in my same situation should understand it's not something to be embarrassed about," Brandl said. "It's not charity. It's a helping hand. It's a boost in someone's life. He understood it was almost like an award. He earned it."
While the program is based in Chicago, McClain said children nationwide can enter year-round. Participants can submit videos to the website www.vingproject.org or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Children will be contacted within 30 days if their video is selected.