Surprise $1,000 gift enables Bellingham students to 'pay it forward'

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 8, 2013 

In a scene reminiscent of the popular movie "Pay It Forward," about 30 Bellingham High School students plan to canvass downtown Bellingham to dispense nearly $1,000 worth of good cheer.

The students are members of Jamie O'Brien's marketing class. For a recent classroom exercise, the students formed teams to think of a new product or service and present plans for their idea - including logos, slogans, business plans and requests for startup money. Then they made a sales pitch, similar to ones in the TV show "Shark Tank," to a panel of four local business people.

The four judges were so impressed by the students' effort that they decided on their own to give the class $1,000 to distribute in some way that would benefit the most people.

There was just one requirement - the students had to agree unanimously.

"The kids' mouths just dropped," O'Brien said.

The student had two days to develop their "Shark Tank" proposals and then present them in class May 31. Ideas put forward to the judges included mobile food carts to sell hot oatmeal with healthy toppings, a smartphone app that enables people to share or loan each other money, a clothing company that makes and sells clothing for people who submit a design online, and a consignment store specializing in used electronic equipment.

At the end of the session, the judges told the students about the $1,000.

"It was a complete surprise," said Rachel Housen, a senior in the class.

On Wednesday, June 5, the students spent an hour discussing 18 ideas about what to do with the money, then settled on the "pay it forward" approach.

In the 2000 movie - which Housen didn't know about - a boy portrayed by Haley Joel Osment is given an assignment by his teacher, Kevin Spacey, to think of a way to change the world and then take action. Osment decides to do a good deed for three people, with the idea that each person he helps will, in turn, help three others ... and on ... and on ... and on.

On Wednesday morning, June 12, the students in O'Brien's class will fan out with $30 apiece to disperse. Ideas include buying coffee for other people in line, and buying snacks and handing them out free. Some of $1,000 will be used to print cards explaining what the students are doing and encouraging the recipients to do a good deed for someone else.

One of the four judges, who asked not to be named, said the idea was to encourage the students to think beyond themselves, to think creatively and to learn to reach agreement.

"He wanted to empower them to start being young philanthropists," O'Brien said.

Reach Dean Kahn at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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