By Jacqueline Kantor
Carborro Commons Co-Editor
For Sondra Komada, there have been a number of memorable students during the past four years, but the one who sticks out is a Burmese refugee attending Chapel Hill High School. He wanted to go on the band program’s trip to Prague, but the cost was too expensive for his family.
Komada recalls, “when we gave him the money and said he was going—and his reaction, there’s nothing like that.”
Komada is a board member for the SKJAJA Fund, an all-volunteer organization created in September 2008 by Eric and Charlotte White. Eric’s sister, Kim, would give all of her family members money to “pay it forward” and report back their charitable giving. SKJAJA gets its name from the first letter of the names of each member of Kim’s family.
The White family chose to continue the tradition with a a non-profit organization dedicated to providing underprivileged children in Chapel Hill and Carrboro the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities, such as band, sports and summer camp.
SKJAJA Fund held its 5th Annual Beach Shack Boil Oct. 13. This year’s event was held at the American Legion Post in Chapel Hill and featured live and silent auctions, raffles, music performances and donations from local businesses, such as beer tasting from Tyler’s Taproom. A fishing village decor transformed the new location, which provided indoor and outdoor space for cornhole and dinner.
The event is the main fundraiser for the organization and helps determines how much money will be given away in the next year, Charlotte White says. To fundraise during the spring, SKJAJA Fund partners with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Sunrise Rotary Club for the annual rubber duck race down the Eno River. The Rotary Club gives the Fund half of the profit from each $10 duck the organization sells.
The fund works with family specialists at Carrboro and Chapel Hill schools to match the program with applicants. Students who receive funding from SKJAJA are required to “pay it forward” in their own way and report back to the organization.
“This was more sustainable than just taking the money and giving it away,” White says. “It gave us an idea that there’s a lot of people out there that can’t afford to do the things some kids can do.”
Since 2008, the organization has funded 125 kids with almost $30,000 in donations. Family specialists help identify students who fill out an application stating what they will use the money for, and how they will pay it forward.
“We’ve paid for piano lessons, orchestra costumes, anything,” White says. “There’s just so many costs involved in extra stuff that not everybody has, but you don’t want them not to be able to participate.”
The ways in which recipients chose to pay it forward is just as diverse, she adds. “We really have a great cross section, it’s really neat to see all of them and then to see what kinds of things they do to pay it forward.”
Elementary school students often walk dogs for their neighbors or garden, while middle school students volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House or other organized charities, White says. High school students might tutor younger kids or work at the Arts Center.
“It’s always neat to see what they come up with,” White says. “Some of the kids will just volunteer. It’s all about just knowing you can give something back that doesn’t have to cost anything. That’s just something I think is important for people to get, especially as kids. And I think if you get that as a kid, you keep that as you grow up.”
SKJAJA funded one student several times who paid it forward by leading a drive for toothbrushes and toiletries for Haiti. The next year, she collected food and cards and distributed the donations to the family specialist at her former elementary, middle and current high schools.
Another student, who was able to go to UNC-Chapel Hill lacrosse camp through donations, started the SKJAJA club at East Chapel Hill. Her mother got involved in the organization and won volunteer of the year.
“A lot of people stay involved after they’ve gotten something,” White says. “It’s like, ‘well y’all helped us, so now we’re going to help you.’”
The student from Burma tutored elementary school students in his native Karen as his pay it forward. He ended up attending college to study music, Komada adds.
“That one thing can change somebody’s life—it’s just cool,” she says. “And the appreciation, whether it’s $50 or $250, the appreciation has just been amazing.”