Rebecca Annitto was an organizer, an energetic, entrepreneurial young student at Stuart Country Day School and the coxswain for her crew team at the Mercer Junior Rowing Club when her life was cut short by a car accident in 2005.
“Becca was deeply engaged with people,” recalls her mother, Miki Saraf. “One day we were talking about kids doing community service, and Becca said, wouldn’t it be great if there were an online clearinghouse where students could find volunteer opportunities, instead of identifying organizations one at a time and phoning them. She wrote up a proposal for a website, tailored for high school students—and then she was killed.”
As a way to keep Rebecca’s ideas alive, Miki got together with a group of Rebecca’s friends and formed Service Opportunities for Students (SOS). “At the beginning, it was helpful to me as a way to cope, to make Rebecca’s vision happen,” Miki says. “We sent out a letter, and from the nonprofits who responded with appropriate openings we picked about fifty as our initial base for the website. We also developed guidelines for students on how to prepare for an interview, how to present yourself, how to conduct yourself as a volunteer.” SOS has a Youth Board that meets monthly, giving students experience at governing and maintaining a charitable operation.
“That first year was serendipitously wonderful, because the summer before Becca died, she had been an extra in Little Miss Sunshine, a film my brother produced. For our first fundraiser, he arranged to show it at the Garden Theatre, with a reception at the public library. It was a wonderful way to launch the site, and to honor Rebecca.
“I called the Community Foundation at the very beginning of all this, and it seemed like a great match. We put the proceeds of our first fundraiser at the Foundation.” With subsequent fundraisers and an annual appeal, Miki says, “we’ve been able to keep money coming into the fund at a pretty good rate.
“The people at the Community Foundation have been wonderful. They’re very encouraging. They’re a great way for us to learn what’s going on across the nonprofit community. It is a privilege to know people who are so committed.”
At the Community Foundation, they set up a scholarship fund, initially to help students who were exemplary in community service. “Then, with advice and help from Ralph Serpe at the Foundation, we changed our mission from a scholarship to that of a fund that would serve the educational needs of schools, students, and organizations as they work to train and use youthful talent. We like to support organizations that help teachers, community service representatives, and kids attend seminars and learn more about how young passions can be harnessed and involved in service.
“We also give a yearly merit award that lets the winner direct a grant of $1,000 to the charity of their choice.” This has proved to be a great way to extend and magnify the effect of each grant beyond the recipient alone. Involving the recipients in making these grants gives the young winners a personal experience of how philanthropy works, enabling them to see the effects of the charitable decisions they make.
SOS decided to affiliate with another local nonprofit, VolunteerConnect, by becoming its Youth Division and letting VolunteerConnect take over website maintenance. “We get more done and have a better chance of survival by joining hands with them,” Miki says. “But we still operate independently. We still have our Youth Board. My daughter Leah is currently on it. Leah is a sophomore at Lawrenceville, plays soccer and hockey, loves art, and created a memory quilt woven of photographs, Becca’s clothes, and beautiful fabric as another way to remember and feel close to her sister.”
Little Miss Sunshine carries a dedication at the film’s end: “In loving memory of Rebecca Annitto / A true beauty inside and out.” Here in her hometown, those loving memories are being constantly translated into action and purpose through the fund, the youth organization, and the annual awards that her extraordinary life inspired.