As an ICSC Summer Fellow working with the student membership program and ICSC Foundation, I have come to learn a lot about the world of philanthropy within the retail realestate industry. I have spent many days simply reading through and writing about the creative and impactful ways shopping centers and REITs contribute to their communities. However, I had yet to meet anyone actively working in these initiatives until Dr. J. Michael Durnil, Simon Youth Foundation (SYF) President and CEO, came to talk to the ICSC Summer Fellows.
SYF is an organization dedicated to providing educational opportunities for at-risk youth to help them finish high school. SYF uses two methods to divert at risk students from dropping out of high school: scholarship distribution and the Simon Youth Academies. The foundation gives out an average of $1.5 million in scholarships (one time and renewable) each year. Of course relieving the financial burden of education is an important element for providing students with hope and encouragement to continue their education, but SYF does not stop there.
Using space within Simon Property Group locations, SYF currently has 18 Simon Youth Academies (SYA). Even to the fellows, the idea of a school in a mall was puzzling. “If someone approached me on the street to tell me they went to high school in a shopping mall, I probably wouldn’t have believed them,” said Eliana Gerson, a rising junior at Tufts University and ICSC Fellow in the leadership development department.
However, Dr. Durnil explained that, upon questioning students skipping school to go to the mall, mall managers found that most students feel safer in a mall then their own school. So SYF brings school to the students where they feel safest. With individualized education plans, a 15:1 student to professional staff ratio, the safe mall environment, and alternative teaching methods these schools have a 90% graduation rate.
Although these facts are impressive, Dr. Durnil explains that the most powerful way for SYF to tell “their story,” is through their students, providing a powerful example in a video of SYA graduate Mary Madden’s testimony. Durnil went on to explain the importance of sharing the foundation’s mission and successes. SYF wants to grow, but to do so it needs support which leads to the continued expansion to new properties in additional cities.
There are many regular fundraising efforts made by SYF; wishing wells, fountains, in-mall events, even a registry where people can buy supplies for the classroom. The cost per student to the foundation is $1,000. Dr. Durnil spoke of waiting lists, as not everyone who would like to participate in the program can. This is part of the reason support is so important. Also when SYA students cross the stage at graduation it is SYF sending the message of, “for a $1,000 donation, here’s what we can do.”
It was such a unique opportunity to get the break down of a retail real estate industry based philanthropy from the inside. Simon Youth Foundation, legally a separate entity from Simon Property Group, is connected to Simon Property Group not only through creation, donation, and location, but also through board members and company policy. Mall mangers have fundraising requirement for the SYF. The ICSC Fellows were able to see the depth of which Simon takes its corporate responsibility and that was exciting, Ashante Patterson, a fellow in the publishing department said, “I was moved by the fact that children who have never been outside of their own environment had an opportunity to explore options for higher education that they might not have before.”
This example of corporate responsibility has become an important aspect of our experience here at ICSC. “I appreciate that we get to learn about the companies we work with. I think that’s an amazing thing, and I appreciate the gesture” said fellow Nicole Gonzales, who is working on the Global Trade Expo. Overall everyone was happy for the experience and was able to take away a lot from our time with Dr. J. Michael Durnil.