That question nagged at Stephanie Norman when she encountered the homeless, most often on the way to the car after a Mariners game.
Living on the Sammamish Plateau in an elegant brick house near a golf course, 13-year-old Stephanie felt guilty she had so much and others so little. But homelessness seemed too big, too remote, for her to play a part in the solution.
So the instructions she received during a visit to a Seattle family shelter this spring caught her off-guard. The staff warned that if she saw anyone she knew, she should keep it to herself. And they cautioned her not to reveal the shelter's location to protect victims from domestic violence.
"These were kids like me. I always thought it was just their fault, and they could fix it if they wanted to," said Stephanie. "Now I know I was so far from the truth."
Stephanie is a founding member of a new philanthropy for youth called Social Venture Kids, created by Social Venture Partners, a 4-year-old Seattle charitable organization funded by technology and business leaders.
Stephanie and nine others, 12 to 17, spent six months raising money and researching causes before giving away $10,500 in May to three Seattle programs for homeless youth.
Social Venture Kids is about young people doing good in the community.
But just as important, it's about teaching children born into or raised with wealth what it means to have and to give, lessons likely to far exceed the value of money they give away.
Most of their parents are among the 290 members of Social Venture Partners. The adults donate $5,500 annually for a minimum of two years, money that is pooled and awarded to local organizations working with children, education and the environment. The group has given away $3.4 million since 1997.
Most members of Social Venture Partners "fell into their wealth," typically from working high-tech jobs, said Paul Shoemaker, who left Microsoft to run the organization. They have grappled with "the promise and peril" of unexpected wealth and the responsibility that comes with it.
As their children grow, the parents want them to come to grips with the same issues, Shoemaker said. Social Venture Kids "is absolutely a way of grounding them."
Youth philanthropy is a growing movement nationally. "There's a shift away from the notion of young people as consumers, as people who need help, toward the idea of them as resources, people with an awful lot to give," said Joel Orosz with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich.
Orosz, who has directed a youth-philanthropy project in Michigan since 1988, said wealthy children are often sheltered from their family's money. As young adults, "they suddenly have this dumped on them, with no experience in how to manage money or how to be generous."
"Now we're seeing more and more people of wealth explicitly trying to introduce children to not only managing their wealth early on, but also giving it away in a thoughtful manner: `How do we raise kids so that wealth becomes their servant and not their master?' " he said.
The Normans had tried firing up their children's' passion for giving, asking them to research charitable causes for Christmastime donations. "But it never really yielded the results we wanted," said Barbara Norman, mother of three teens involved in the group — Stephanie; Ali, 16; and Tim, 12. Norman also served as the coordinator of Social Venture Kids.
"Living where we do, this isn't reality. This isn't the way most people live. And up here (on the Sammamish Plateau), you don't see the need," Norman said.
"As the kids were getting older, we thought this is something they need to be involved in."
Eventually, children from four Social Venture Partner families and one other family signed up.
For some, their involvement began with a parent's push, while others saw it as a way to rack up mandatory community-service hours for school — up to 35 hours per school year to make the honor roll for one student.
But it quickly became personal.
"I was surprised by how much homeless kids go through ... and by how much I felt for them," said Coco Massengale, 14, of Bothell.
"They have to deal with being an adolescent like us, and on top of that, they're homeless."
"They want that brand-name shirt as much as you do," added her sister, Alex Massengale, 15, "that nice house, that cool backpack. ... And then they have to worry about where they're going to live, what they're going to eat, will Dad be sober today?"
The young people began meeting in November and settled quickly on the cause of homeless children. But raising the money and giving it away both proved trickier than they thought.
Through gift-wrapping, candy sales and soliciting donations, the youths raised $2,500. Their parents and Social Venture Partners brought the total to $10,500.
Then the group got educated.
They listened to speakers from nonprofit agencies and learned about runaway children compelled to return to abusive homes; homeless parents who went hungry so they could afford clothes that would help their kids fit in at school; an 8-year-old responsible for making sure his mother took medication for schizophrenia.
Social Venture Kids sent out grant applications to about 125 agencies dealing with homelessness and received 11 proposals in return.
Then came tough decisions about how to divvy up the money. The group used a process that mirrors how Social Venture Partners gives away its money.
"The kids were even cagier than the adults about manipulating the voting rules," Shoemaker laughed.
They winnowed the list to four agencies and then visited each.
Armed with notebooks and a list of hard questions, the youths remember what struck them most was how the children they heard about and saw seemed so much like them.
And they were surprised by how great the need is.
One agency said for every family that receives emergency housing, four are turned away.
"I just realized all of us are very lucky," said Bobby Seidensticker, 13, of Woodinville.
The adults they met were uniformly impressed with their smart questions.
"There are a lot of foundations here that don't necessarily articulate what their priorities are ... or even do site visits," said Paul Haas, development director for the Fremont Public Association, which runs the Broadview Emergency Shelter and Transitional Housing program.
Broadview received a $2,500 grant for general operating expenses.
YouthCare of Seattle received a $3,000 grant to pay for outings to sporting events, plays and other cultural events out of reach for many homeless teens.
"We were struck by the notion of young people making decisions about philanthropy and giving to causes they decide are important," said Kate Grossman, a program manager at YouthCare. "These weren't typical rich, do-gooder kids — they were learning and interested in people and things beyond themselves."
A third grant of $5,000 went to FareStart, a Seattle job-training organization, to help launch a new program training homeless youth to be baristas.
Kit Massengale, the mother of Alex and Coco, expects them and her 9-year-old son to play an active role one day in running their family's small foundation.
Already, her daughters help screen applications for a scholarship program the family set up at Massengale's college alma mater.
"I consider it mandatory to give back," Massengale said. "I think they learned more than they expected about teamwork and sacrificing time and homelessness ... ."
Norman said the group — which also includes Genny Seidensticker of Woodinville; Ellen Miller of Seattle; and Rachel and Philip Caalim of Redmond — will resume work in the fall, likely joined by new members.
The youths say the experience led to some surprising revelations.
"I got two major things out of this," said Ali Norman. "They're not just drunk bums. They're real people with real problems. They're just like me.
"And, thanks to my parents, I've never been really badly spoiled. They've always said don't take things for granted, and you have to work for things. Now I know how lucky we are to have to work for it."
Jolayne Houtz can be reached at 206-464-3122 or firstname.lastname@example.org.