pennies

A program designed to turn spare change into a grant program that provides tens of thousands of dollars annually to organizations benefiting children has worked well since its inception three years ago, but organizers fear that the current levels of funding are not enough.

“Pennies With a Purpose,” a joint effort by Citizens Gas Utility District and Children’s Center of the Cumberlands, has provided $65,000 in grants since its inception in 2011.

The concept is not dissimilar to programs put into place in recent years by a number of other utilities. The major difference, according to Citizens Gas general manager Greg Bell, is that “Pennies With a Purpose” goes strictly to organizations that support children.

Under the “Pennies With a Purpose” program, Citizens Gas rounds up the monthly bills of customers who agree to be part of the program to the next highest dollar amount. A bill for $19.32, for example, would become $20.

The result is pennies per customer, but it adds up in a hurry, according to Patty Swain of the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands.

“We’ve given grants for great things,” Swain said. “Teachers have purchased iPads for their classrooms, we’ve put in playgrounds, teachers have taken their kids to Washington, D.C., we’ve purchased shoes for kids. The list is really quite extensive.”

In addition to local schools, organizations that have benefited from “Pennies With a Purpose” include the Boys & Girls Club of Scott County, the Scott Christian Care Center and the local Boy Scouts troop.

Under the design of “Pennies With a Purpose,” 25 percent of the funds go to the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands. The other 75 percent are awarded in the form of grants — and scholarships. One student from each high school in Scott and Morgan counties — including Landmark Christian and Redemption Baptist, private schools in each county — receives a $500 scholarship each year. Grant recipients are chosen by an 8-person board that consists of four members each in Scott and Morgan counties, the two counties serviced by Citizens Gas. Board members include the likes of retired principals and church pastors, and cannot include any family member of a Citizens Gas or Children’s Center employee.

“The board is completely independent to choose which organizations receive these grants, and they’re very picky about where they send the money,” Swain said. “They make sure the money is going to children. They have turned down some grants that have been requested because they felt the school could get money for the proposed project from the state and so we didn’t need to spend our money on that, even though it was a good project.”

The problem is that only about 45 percent of Citizens Gas’s customers participate in the program. Slightly more than half opted out. Swain said some misperceptions may be to blame.

“There’s this idea that if you round up your bill, that money is going to pay the bills of others who either cannot pay their bill or will not pay their bill,” she said. “That isn’t true. One hundred percent of the money goes to programs that help children.”

The maximum amount of money each customer can give in a year’s time, Swain said, is $11.88 — or 99 cents per month.

“But it adds up to us being able to give away nearly $60,000 to benefit children,” she said. “Realistically, most people probably throw away a dollar a month, so what we would love to see happen is for more customers to enroll in the ‘Pennies With a Purpose’ program.”

Swain said that the scholarship program began with hopes that funding levels would eventually allow the scholarship to be increased to $1,000. So far, that hasn’t happened. And, she added, other grants could have to be cut back as well.

“Citizens Gas doesn’t round anyone up who pays the minimum monthly fee of $5.50,” Swain said. “So during the summer, funds drop and we get less money.

“If we could get more customers to round up . . . that’s the key, I think.”

Customers who wish to opt-in and have their bills rounded up each month can call 569-4457.

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