Author: caitlin-zappas

Since joining the Spruce board 18 months ago, I’ve learned a lot about giving – not just my own giving, but giving in general. I took a few moments to reflect on the top lessons I have learned from being involved and engaged with the Spruce Foundation as a young Philadelphia professional and board member.



1. Philanthropy doesn’t have to mean donating large amounts of money.

When you think about philanthropy, big donors and fancy dinners probably come to mind. Before I joined Spruce, being successful enough to give back felt like a distant goal. As a 20-something living in the city, the idea of making huge donations to anything other than my student loans was laughable. Learning about and joining the board of the Spruce Foundation enabled me to see that I could make a legitimate difference in a non-profit’s organization by donating $25 here and there. It does add up.


2. Giving financially allows non-profits to have greater freedom over their resources

Non-profits know what they are doing. They know how to run their own budget, how to manage their time, volunteers, and strategic plans. Volunteering is very helpful for non-profits. But there is nothing more empowering to a non-profit that receiving a grant or a donation – it gives them the power to operate more freely, to evolve as an organization, and to thrive. They’re able to plan more efficiently, which enables them to do more good.


3. Young people are enthusiastic about giving

I was hesitant about asking for donations when I first joined the Spruce board, worried that my friends and peers may not be willing or interested in giving. At Spruce, we promote making donations not only to Spruce, but to any organization you may feel passionate about. I was convinced that my peers might not see how valuable philanthropy, especially young philanthropy, is to our world, our city, and our generation. But through Spruce, I learned that young people actually are very eager to give. Many young people have hesitations about the amount they are able to give. Teaching friends and peers how important it is to give something personally meaningful is the real lesson.


4. Philanthropy just feels good

Joining the board of the Spruce Foundation enabled me to see that I could make a legitimate difference in a non-profit’s organization by donating the amount of a latte or a bowl of  Ramen. It’s worth giving up those things to give back. It feels good to make sacrifices now and then in the name of doing good. When you turn that good feeling into a habit, it quickly becomes a passion.



Monica O’Donoghue is the kind of person who exudes passion. It’s in the tone of her voice. It’s in the words she uses when she talks about what she does and what she loves. And it’s also in the story of her life.

Monica grew up in the Philadelphia area, attending high school at Merion Mercy Academy in Merion Station and college at Villanova University. Growing up in the Catholic Church and attending Catholic school taught her the importance of being involved and giving back. Catholic school has required service hours. Some students would complain about this. Not Monica. She took this as a lesson: it taught her how to fit giving into her life.

Even prior to high school, Monica was instilled with a sense of giving and duty by her parents, who gave their own time and money to a variety of causes growing up. They also spent holidays, Christmas and Thanksgiving, giving meals to families in Camden, leaving a warm home to go door to door feeding families in need. In Monica’s family, she says, “giving back was just what you did.”

Monica spends a lot of her time as a member of the Friends of Cristo Rey. Cristo Rey is a high school in North Philadelphia. She has been part of the organization for 2 years. It’s an independent school (not a charter school), aptly called “the school that works.” Students attend class four days per week, rounding out their weeks working one to two days at partnering businesses in the Philadelphia area. The Friends of Cristo Rey provide students with experiences they wouldn’t normally get to do, like taking students ice skating, bowling, and even hiking in Valley Forge. According to Monica, the best part of this work is to help foster connections with and between the students, and to help them understand more about the world around them.

Because she loves bringing people together, she is also part of the Travis Manion Foundation PRUM Committee. The planning committee puts together a gala (this is their 4th annual) in which proceeds are donated to the Travis Manion Foundation. Travis was killed serving overseas 11 years ago, and his family created a foundation in his name, the money goes towards helping vets returning from overseas. It also supports reintroduction services. Monica heard about the organization from her friends, the owners of the Crossfit University City gym and sponsors of the gala, and in classic Monica style, decided she just had to get involved.

Monica’s day job at TD Bank isn’t directly tied to giving (though TD Bank does support corporate and individual giving to a variety of causes). This is part of why she feels so strongly about donating her time and money. She is a senior analyst for the corporate lending business unit, where she works on complex projects related to business strategy and various other initiatives. She is clearly passionate about what she does.

In our interview, my last question for Monica was about the books, talks, or speeches that inspired her and helped her develop her philosophy of philanthropy. She didn’t have an answer. I believe there’s a reason for that. Monica doesn’t need something external to drive or inspire her to give – giving is just what Monica does.

MLK Day of Service is one of the most impactful days of the year in Philly. Citizens volunteer to help refurb schools by painting them, refurbing them, and making small projects like bookshelves. According to their website, MLK day of Service in Philly has completed over 1,800 projects, with over 145,000 volunteers, and 500,000 service hours. It’s a big deal. This year, it was held on January 15.

I wanted a bit more information on the day, so Spruce’s fearless leader Eliza put me in touch with Bria Spivey. When I talked to Bria, I found out about the great work that MLK Day of Service is doing, but I also learned that the real service goes much deeper than what happens on that day. There is a lot of work put in on the back end to make things happen; work that is being done by incredibly talented, intelligent, and passionate people making a difference – people like Bria.

Bria spent a year of service in Philly with City Year from 2014 to 2015. City Year is a national organization that believes that education is what helps kids reach their potential. They deploy corps members to 25+ cities to serve in a variety of functions, mainly as school support and support to students. According to Bria, the Philly City Year team was large, but because of how difficult the work can be, some people end their service early – not Bria though.

While the in-school support role of a City Year AmeriCorps member is essential to student success there is a small but mighty team called the Civic Engagement Team or CE Team which plans, coordinates and executes all the major service events. Bria served on this team as the Communications Coordinator where she enlisted volunteers for all major service events, as well as managed all social media postings for her team. Bria also went above and beyond, managing registration on the largest days of service, including MLK Day. She remembered many of the volunteers by their first names – remarkable, considering over 1,000 people registered for that event.

What was her favorite part of her City Year experience? The kids. “Kids are the best part of MLK Day of Service, they are so, so appreciative, and they want to come to school the next day to see all the beautiful work that has been done.” She said that many of the schools selected tend to have walls that haven’t been painted in decades. After City Year comes in, they are vibrant and full of color, full of little details and custom designs. All in all, Bria called her City Year of service, “the best experience of her life.” She participated this year as a volunteer.

Bria is currently working in the office of Innovation Management at the City of Philadelphia as the Digital Inclusion Program Specialist. She started last year. Prior to that, she earned her Master’s Degree in Strategic Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. Bria keeps in contact with a lot of her professors, she is even conducting some research for one of them.

Bria turned her year of service into a life of service. She was able to leverage her deep dedication to Philadelphia, her intelligence, talent, and passion for change into personal success. Philly is lucky to have her.

You don’t have to be from Philly to be making a difference in this city – Nick Thompson proves that. After graduating from Binghamton University in 2013, he moved to Philly and has been a force for good ever since. He came to Philadelphia to earn his Masters of Public Health at Drexel University. He aspired to be a physician when he was younger, but was drawn to public health through his love of service and a deep feeling of responsibility to give back.

Nick started working at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals in 2015 after receiving his MPH. He specifically works as a Project Management Analyst, ensuring work is effectively completed in a timely fashion on the Epic implementation, so the hospital can do as much good as possible for its patients. However, he believes that making a real difference shouldn’t stop when you leave the office; it is just as, if not more, important to continue to make a difference outside of work too.

Prior to Nick’s work at Jefferson, he was president of the Graduate Student Association at Drexel, where he actively worked to inspire busy (understatement) graduate students to engage in their passions and community causes in Philadelphia. He has also been actively involved with the American Public Health Association (APHA) in their Maternal and Child Health Section. With APHA, he was on point to help create appropriate messaging and make data digestible to the public related to antibiotic resistance and gun violence prevention. In addition, Nick has participated in cooking for the Gift of Life Family House, where transplant recipients spend time and recover with their families. He made families feel more safe and welcome during a time that can feel scary or uncertain. He also volunteered at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, and has spent weekends giving food at St. Peter’s Food Cupboard.

Sitting on the grant applicant committee is one of the most important functions of Spruce volunteers as they are the group of people that grade and ultimately select our grantees. Nick has been one of those volunteers for the last two years and plans to continue assisting as long as they need his help.

Some people give back by using their skills to create strategies to help others. Some people give back by becoming an expert in their field and working to effect change through process and hard work. Still, others give their time to improve the lives of individuals by communicating and giving directly to them through volunteering. Nick Thompson does all those things.

Instead of being dragged down by the current negative political climate, he thinks millennials should use that energy to continue to stay involved, give back and stay engaged in what’s going on in the world. Some of Nick’s inspiration and optimism comes from TED Talks – he specifically recommends “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe” by Simon Sinek and “Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling” by Emilie Wapnick.

Among the houses of West Philadelphia is a green, blooming garden, the namesake of the West Philly based arts non-profit Al-Bustan (“the garden” in Arabic) Seeds of Culture that presents and teaches Arab culture through the arts and language. It serves as a meeting place, a grove to brainstorm, and part of the home of Al-Bustan’s dynamic Executive Director Hazami Sayed. The garden office extends into a beautiful basement space, filled with books, artifacts, and pieces of art from Philadelphia students Sayed has mentored through the years; and finally, countless miniature pieces of art from the installation I came here to discuss: An Immigrant Alphabet. Below is the interview I had with Hazami Sayed, executive director of Al-Bustan, and Diana Misdary, Al-Bustan’s public art project manager.*

Where did the idea of the alphabet come from?
Hazami Sayed: The alphabet idea started with Wendy Ewald, an artist I had started following years before. She had done similar projects involving alphabets and disenfranchised youth as part of a project called American Alphabets.

How did you choose Northeast high school to feature?
HS: Al-Bustan has a longstanding partnership with Northeast High School over the past ten years. As the largest and most ethnically diverse public school in Philadelphia, NEHS has a significant number of students of Arab heritage, including Palestinian-Americans who were born here and immigrants from Iraqi, Syria, and Sudan who came here as refugees. By offering arts-based programming in and out of the school day, we have built relationships with many teachers and students–some of whom we continue to mentor. At the request of the administration, we also supported a Muslim Girls Culture Club–a few of the girls in the club are actually featured in An Immigrant Alphabet.

Was Northeast High administration on board with the project?
HS: Since we were already there during the school day with Al-Bustan teaching artists working with Dr. Jay Fluellen’s class three days per week, the administration and faculty were very accommodating. They allowed us to pull students out of some classes and adjust their schedule during the 4 weeks of Wendy’s residency at the school.

How did you select the students to participate in the alphabet project?
HS: The selection process started out with an application. Part of the application was light criteria around immigration, it had to have impacted their lives in some way. Applicants did not have to be immigrants, though all the students or their parents were immigrants. We asked the students to tell us about themselves. We also asked them why they wanted to participate in the project. We felt it was important to select students who showed a genuine desire to participate, since this would be a time investment for them.

What were some of the reasons the students were interested?
HS: Some students want to tell their story, but others were interested in the technical and artistic aspects of the project. Joseph was interested in the photography aspect. He’s currently working as a photographer. You can see his hands in the letter G for Greencard.

Can you describe some of the other letters and their participants?
Diana Misdary: Doha is an Iraqi who fled her country during the war, living in Syria till she came with her family to America as refugees. She started out in Kentucky, which she found to be much different than Philadelphia. There weren’t any outsiders in Kentucky. When she came to the Northeast, she started out as an ESL student. She was in gen-ed by the time she was a senior, her progression was so remarkable. You can see her in letter T for trust. Rushana is another, who fled her home country Tajikstan as her mother was a journalist critical of the government. After living in Turkey for several years, Rushana and her 3 siblings and mother were able to get refugee status in America. You can see her in the letter L for leave.

Did you face any challenges getting the installation hung?
DM: We had a very smooth, and pleasant experience with the City of Philadelphia in getting this up. The City and the Mayor’s Office have been very receptive to the installation, they even put some of our previous student artwork from our camps and workshops in the foyer of the mayor’s office.

Were there any other locations considered?
DM: We were considering 30th Street Station for a brief time, then Andrew Stober of University City District suggested we look at the Municipal Services Building. We approached the Director of Public Art Margot Berg at the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy who responded quickly with interest and enthusiasm, enabling us to do this as a temporary public art installation.

What has the response been from the public? What are the conversations you’ve had with onlookers at the installation?
DM: Mostly very positive. I’ve had conversations with people who didn’t realize how much their own lives were impacted by immigration and refugees, and also people who are keenly aware. I had a very meaningful conversation with a descendant of Holocaust survivors about forced assimilation, and about losing who you were before to assimilate here. In 2017, it probably shouldn’t be that way, but that’s the way it’s always been. It has served as a reminder that we need to resist the current political climate.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned from doing this work?
HS: Invest the time in getting to know people.

An Immigrant Alphabet installation will be on display at the Municipal Services Building through the end of the year. Join Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture in active participation at the installation, and take the active participation survey on their website.

*The interviews with Hazami Sayed and Diana Misdary occurred at separate times, and these answers are condensed for length and clarity.