Home > Our World > News > News Archives by Date > News Archive 2008 > December 2008 > News - December 2008
Penny Project uses pocket change to enact change

Members of the youth group at First United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Mich., sort some of the 23 million pennies collected as part of "The Penny Project." The pennies represent the 23 million people in sub-Saharan Africa living with HIV/AIDS. UMNS photos by Jon Kaplan

By Jon Kaplan*
Dec. 10, 2008 | BIRMINGHAM, Mich. (UMNS)

If you ever thought your pocket change was merely an annoying collection of coins with little value, you’re not alone.

Fourteen-year-old Jamie Hinz used to think the same thing. Then, she and members of her youth group at First United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Mich., learned that a few pennies can profoundly change lives, especially the lives of people in Africa infected with HIV/AIDS.

Jamie Hinz, 14, lights a luminary to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

"A penny is worth a lot," Hinz says. "When I see a penny in the street, I pick it up. When I see a dime, I pick it up. Because a dime is 10 people in Africa, a penny is a whole person in Africa."

Hinz learned those lessons thanks to a church outreach mission called The Penny Project.

That’s what the youth named their ambitious effort to raise 23 million pennies—to symbolically represent the 23 million people in sub-Saharan Africa with HIV/AIDS. The teens hoped that reaching their goal could provide them with enough money to help at least a few of those people half a world away.

"We never really thought of change as anything more than just something we longed to get rid of," explains 16-year-old Mallory Hinz, another youth group member. "But when you see it all together and you see just how much money we raised just by a penny and you count it as a person, you can really see how much of a difference it can make."

'God showed up'

The 23 million penny goal grew out of nothing more than a conversation between youth group leaders, while enjoying pizza and Coke at their pastor’s home in the summer of 2005.

"We say it's the day that God showed up in my dining room," remembers the Rev. Jeff Nelson, associate pastor. "We were talking about what they may like to do for the year. One of the kids had an idea of really making a difference."

Rather than hold bake sales, rake leaves, organize car washes or do cleanup chores for elderly neighbors, the youth had more idealistic thoughts. It was the summer of the Live AIDS Concerts, with rock stars such as Bono explaining how charitable donations could save lives. Nelson recalls that during the conversation, someone in the group had an epiphany.

"Somebody at the table pulled out a penny and said, 'Here’s how we can make a difference in a problem so big. What if we view each penny as a single person with AIDS?' We never looked at a penny the same way again," Nelson says.

"The next thing you know, the kids reached into their pockets, threw about $4 of spare change on the table that day and that’s how The Penny Project was born."

That modest beginning has reaped big bucks and made an even bigger difference. During the past three years, the youth have collected copper coins in bags, boxes and jars—not just from their own church members but from groups and congregations of all faiths and others across the United States who heard about The Penny Project.

After three years of saving and fundraisers, the youth reached their goal of 23 million pennies in November as they sold luminaries at Thanksgiving so people could light the lawn of their church.

"Those lights remind us to keep the light on, keep the light burning, the light of hope," Nelson says.

Journey to Africa

To see firsthand how best to spend the money raised by The Penny Project, many members of the youth group visited Ghana in the summer of 2007. Africa has 12 million AIDS orphans, and the teens were moved by the children they met at one such orphanage.

"It was probably the best experience of my life, just going there. We played with the kids at the orphanage and it was joyful and heartbreaking," says 19-year-old Emily Reynolds, co-founder of The Penny Project.

“Somebody at the table pulled out a penny and said, '… What if we view each penny as a single person with AIDS?' We never looked at a penny the same way again.”
–The Rev. Jeff Nelson

The teens also helped a group of HIV-infected women start a small sewing business to support their families. They donated money to fund scholarships at Africa University in Zimbabwe, the first United Methodist Church-related university on the continent.

"We gave $10,000 to Africa University, which put 10 students full-time into their medical school program," Nelson says. "They’ll be on the front lines in community health of their communities because of these kids’ pennies."

The success of the sewing project led the teens to the idea of "micro-lending" or giving the seed money for loans that can be awarded, repaid and then awarded to a new group. The youth group donated $150,000 to Opportunity International, a non-profit microfinance organization. The money will provide small loans and business training to AIDS victims in Ghana and thus, according to Nelson, transform lives.

"They’ve impacted generations beyond themselves. It’s been a pretty remarkable thing," the pastor says.

The Penny Project also proves that anyone, no matter how rich or poor, can use pocket change to enact real change.

"Everybody’s got a penny. Everybody’s got a penny," stresses Nelson. "The secret to this project and its success is that there isn’t a single person who can’t contribute to the success of this and change lives."

*Kaplan is a freelance producer in Chicago.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Video Story

Penny Project Aids Africa

Related Video

Security for AIDS Orphans

Related Articles

Youth give 1 million pennies to Africa University

How the Penny Project started

Collecting enough copper coins makes a difference, youth learn

Youth give 1 million pennies to Africa University


The Penny Project

Young People’s Ministries

Africa University

Ask Now

This will not reach a local church, district or conference office. InfoServ* staff will answer your question, or direct it to someone who can provide information and/or resources.


*InfoServ ( about ) is a ministry of United Methodist Communications located in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. 1-800-251-8140

Not receiving a reply?
Your Spam Blocker might not recognize our email address. Add this address to your list of approved senders.

Would you like to ask any questions about this story?ASK US NOW

Original text