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Youth give 1 million pennies to Africa University

Youth members of Birmingham (Mich.) First United Methodist Church present a check to James Salley (center), development officer for United Methodist-related Africa University. The funds from the church's Penny Project will support the university's response to Africa's HIV/AIDS pandemic. UMNS photos courtesy of Birmingham (Mich.) First United Methodist Church.

By Ciona D. Rouse*
United Methodist News Service
Sept. 26, 2007

Youth in Birmingham, Mich., hope a penny saved is a life saved through their donation of 1 million pennies to Africa University's Faculty of Health Sciences.

The Penny Project, an interfaith effort to collect one penny for each of the 23 million Africans living with HIV/AIDS, was created by the youth of First United Methodist Church, Birmingham, who decided to try making a difference in Africa's HIV/AIDS pandemic.

"We call it the day God showed up in the dining room," said youth pastor Jeff Nelson, referring to a brainstorming lunch meeting the day the idea was born.

Six million pennies have been collected with a goal of 23 million, one penny for each of the 23 million Africans living with HIV/AIDS.

Since summer 2005, the youth have sponsored a penne pasta supper, a World AIDS Day dance, a "Cent-O" de Mayo celebration and other events. Additionally, the youth and their parents collect pennies in plastic cups. Other churches and organizations partner with the group.

"It's been incredible to see the way people have latched onto the idea," said the Rev. Jack Harnish, First Church pastor. "It started with the (youth), but very quickly it became a passion of the whole congregation."

Parents have taken plastic cups to work to collect pennies in the community. The youth say they've collected pennies at school in Pringle's potato chip containers.

"We tell all of our friends about it. They think it's cool that we're doing something like this and are enthusiastic about giving whatever spare change they have," said church youth member Kathleen Perry.

The Penny Project has raised 6 million pennies, or $60,000.

"The first time I heard '23 million,' I thought, 'we're never going to raise this money.' But we're already a quarter of the way there," Perry said.

The million pennies ($10,000) already given to Africa University support comprehensive HIV/AIDS efforts, including work with orphans in Zimbabwe, a country with nearly 1.3 million children orphaned by AIDS.

The idea for collecting the pennies came when a teen noted that pennies are sometimes forgotten coins, often seen as having little value, Nelson said. The young people compared the coin to how people sometimes forget and devalue the people in Africa living with HIV/AIDS.

Perry said she has been changed by the experience of connecting to people in Africa. "We really are brothers and sisters, and we need to help (the people in Africa) just as much as we would help someone in our neighborhood."

The young people have spent time learning about the HIV/AIDS pandemic and also educating the church community about the importance of serving the AIDS community in Africa and in their neighborhood.

Perry and Allen Bower visited Ghana in June, along with seven other youth, to spend time with people who are HIV-positive. "The AIDS crisis is huge, and I didn't know much about AIDS before we started this," Bower said. "It's become really important to me because now we've met people (who have the disease)."

The youth have donated to other organizations as well. Learn more about participating in the Penny Project at www.fumcbirmingham.org/pennyproject .

*Rouse is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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