A class of fifth-graders at McKinley Elementary School recently got a glimpse of the biggest check they had ever seen.

Representatives of Santa Barbara Bank & Trust pledged to match anything the students could raise for philanthropy. The class raised more than $500 since the school year began, and SBBT’s Randy Weiss was on hand to show the kids how they have been able to leverage their dollars.

The check presentation was just one piece of a program through which the students have learned how they can participate in philanthropy.

The fifth-graders have been busy this fall with multiple projects, in addition to their fundraising efforts. It’s all part a venture in the classroom using a curriculum called “Learning to Give.”

School districts across the country are using the K-12 program, put out by an educational group called the League based in New Jersey, in conjunction with other subjects teachers are already teaching.

Spearheading the local effort at McKinley is Tina Fanucchi, former executive director of the Santa Barbara Education Foundation.

Fanucchi began working with McKinley, at 350 Loma Alta Drive, as a “pre-pilot” to the larger effort under way for next year. She’s looking at the possibility of expanding the program next fall to Goleta Valley Junior High, Bishop Diego High, Peabody Charter School and Crane Country Day School, as well Santa Maria High.

Her goal is to incorporate the program in schools from Carpinteria to Guadalupe, and she’s put together an advisory committee and has been working with county schools on the project.

Teachers can draw from more than 1,500 free lesson plans on the group’s Web site that partner with subjects already being taught.

“If they’re learning about history, they’re going to be learning about Anne Frank, they’re going to be learning about the people who sheltered her,” Fanucchi said. “By the time they’re graduating high school, they’re well-versed in how philanthropy works.”

For the students at McKinley, learning about philanthropy hasn’t always been easy. For their first project, they were asked to donate what any child might consider one of his or her most precious commodities — Halloween candy.

The fifth-graders brought in their leftover candy, solicited other classes to do the same and ended up collecting more than 84 pounds of candy to give to children living at Transition House.

Randy Weiss of Santa Barbara Bank & Trust presents the $500 check to the students.

Randy Weiss of Santa Barbara Bank & Trust presents the $500 check to the students. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Ten-year-old Erika Sela said the experience hurts sometimes, but “it also makes you feel really good. You get to go home knowing that you brought happiness to someone you didn’t even know.”

Their next project had them producing a video to encourage other classes to bring canned goods to donate to Unity Shoppe, polishing their public-speaking skills in the process.

Their teacher, Joan Swanson, said that 90 percent of McKinley students have received services at some point, whether from Transition House, Unity Shoppe or other charitable organizations. She said some of the children were ashamed to admit they had lived at Transition House before or had received assistance at Unity Shoppe when the group went to volunteer.

“It’s important for them to know how to give back,” she said. “They’re such good kids. … I really want them to be contributors to society.”

Fanucchi said that when she first began doing research, there was a concern that the students who were recipients of the services might not be able to give.

“I came from a different school of thought,” she said.

When Fannuchi would bring in donated maps, globes and classroom supplies during her tenure as director at the Santa Barbara Education Foundation, the children were always grateful, “but there was almost a look of embarrassment on their faces,” she said.

She said she realized that the children didn’t have a mechanism to give back to the community, even if it’s just stocking shelves at Unity Shoppe once a month, like the McKinley students.

By freshening up the definition of philanthropy to include time and talent, not just treasure, students are able to expand their contributions beyond the monetary. But that hasn’t precluded their desire to raise funds.

They’ve set a goal of $3,500 for the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation, which Swanson admits is lofty, considering the class so far has raised only $578. But each student has a small plastic piggy bank, with a $2 starter fund from SBBT, which Fanucchi encouraged them to “feed” over the holiday break.

Whether it’s money they find in their couches or parts of allowance given from their parents, all the money the kids raise will go to the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation.

Part of the charge is sharing what the kids learn with their parents, and Fanucchi believes that getting parents on board will make all of the difference in kids staying involved with philanthropy for the long term.

But it’s also about training the next generation. The majority of wealth is being transferred to the next generation in the next 25 years, according to Fanucchi.

One of her colleagues who uses the program in Austin, Texas, has seen decreases in student violence and an increase in test scores.

The reason for that, Fanucchi said, is because the program serves as an empowering mechanism for low-poverty students. “It’s not the magic bullet,” she said, “but there’s something to be said for feeling engaged and empowered.”

Fanucchi said she recognizes that teachers have a lot on their plates, so she comes in and acts as a facilitator, and that any educators or school staff interested in implementing the program at their schools should contact her.

For now, the kids at McKinley remain excited about the possibilities.

“These kids just went crazy with giving,” Fanucchi said. “They cannot think of enough ways to help.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at lcooper@noozhawk.com.

— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at lcooper@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.