Walk around Astoria High School, and ask about Josh McConnell.
The results might surprise, as the 18-year-old and a youthful but growing group behind Josh’s Fund, was created in honor of the late community leader Ann Morden, have raised about $3,700 over the past few years to help the students of AHS.
“I feel like I need to keep it going because apparently it helps a lot of kids, and I enjoy doing it,” said Josh, instantly recognizable as much by his unceasingly jovial, but business-like, demeanor as his long, curly blond hair and sport coat. “I’m just going to continue doing this.”
Josh comes from a working-class background but sells whatever he can – from food to flora – to support students not just at AHS, but in Africa through his group’s Pennies and Pretzels for Peace program to build schools specifically for children orphaned by AIDS.
“That’s how I was raised,” said his mother Marla McConnell, who adopted Josh as a baby. “There’s responsibility in life to … create social change.”
Josh’s philanthropy, she said, stems largely from the time people have invested in him and the students and family friends he works with. He lives with a learning disability and started high school in 2010 in the Youth Transition Program, which teaches special-needs students academic, life and employment skills to take them beyond high school.
“He really likes to please others, not just the teachers,” said Mark Erickson, a teacher in the program. “He has a real absolute, genuine desire to create an environment that is kind of productive.”
“I know that there are a lot of unacknowledged acts of kindness that our students benefit from,” said AHS Principal Lynn Jackson, adding that the mere mention of Josh or his fundraising has turned around students’ attitudes on multiple occasions.
Josh started his philanthropy in middle school, sending money to build schools in Afghanistan. But when family friend Molly Albright read a story in The Daily Astorian about homeless students, Josh approached AHS Counselor Andrew Fick and asked what students needed.
“Some of it has been about lowering the barriers for students getting involved, such as lowering fees,” said Fick, who later opened the Community Assistance account to funnel Josh’s Fund money to students.
Since the account was set up in the 2011-12 school year, it has helped 115. Most of them know Josh, said Fick, and “just having those relationships really makes you a strong model for a lot of other students.”
Students such as Wyatt Holiday, a 14-year-old freshman and volunteer with Josh in the high school’s greenhouse program, said the fund paid for his student ID card and inspired them to do more.
“I went to the Cesar E. Chavez Leadership Council,” said 17-year-old junior Lalo Garcia, adding that Josh’s Fund paid for all the participants and their gas to and from the event at Western Oregon University in Monmouth.
Mariah Dann, 17, whose student body card Josh’s Fund covered, met Josh freshmen year while he was volunteering at the Net Shed free clothing outlet at AHS. Josh volunteers through his fund at the Net Shed, Tackle Box store, the AHS greenhouse and at the First United Methodist Church.
“If you want to help people, just do it,” she said about how he inspired her. “Don’t wait for an opportunity. Just make your own project and do it.”
She said there needs to be more clubs like Key Club to raise money for student needs, adding that the high school should start a club in his fund’s honor – Josh said she approached him this week about the very topic.
“We’re looking for people to help organize fundraising efforts,” said Fick, adding that there are students at the high school wanting to get involved but lack of adult core organizers. Those interested in helping can contact him through AHS at 503-325-3211.
In addition to school supplies, IDs, conferences and college preparation aid, Josh’s Fund helps students take part in wood shop and art programs charging fees to supplement their meager resources.
Dan Foss, a teacher with the wood shop who tapped Josh for a Youth Recognition award he won in May, said it’s the most amazing action by a student he’s seen in his 28 years of teaching. Mickey Cereghino, AHS art teacher, said this kind of fundraising is necessary, as fees for the programs can often run beyond students’ means, and the funding for supplies often run out less than halfway through the school year.
Pretzels and plants
Possibly Josh’s most visible fundraiser has been the authentic German pretzels he and his volunteers make at the Blue Scorcher Bakery and sell at AHS home athletic contests.
In three hours during the recent homecoming football game, Josh and other volunteers sold more than $600 worth of the 300-plus pretzels he and more than 10 volunteers made earlier at the Blue Scorcher.
“Clearly it’s a great project, and I certainly feel the … desire to repay the gratitude to the community,” said Joe Garrison, a baker for the coop who’s known Josh’s family and overseen the pretzel-making since it began three years ago.
Garrison said the recipe for the pretzels, an offering unique to Josh’s Fund, come from the famed Jeffrey Hamelman, director of the King Arthur Flour Baking Education Center in Vermont.
Josh’s group of volunteers won’t churn out another batch until late November at the earliest. For those who don’t want to wait, call the First United Methodist Church at 503-325-5454 to make an order.
Josh met Heidi Fastabend, a teaching assistant for the Youth Transition Program, while in class. Fastabend said that after learning about his programs and infallible work ethic, she gifted him the geranium plant starts that sprouted the plant sale facet of his fundraisers out of the AHS greenhouse. He also sells Moroccan mint plants, especially good for tea.
“He’s really created a huge opportunity for other people to learn really useful skills,” said instructor Renia Ydstie about Josh’s involvement in the high school greenhouse project and spring plant sales, adding that he must have 12 different projects going on.
Pennies and Pretzels for Peace
The core group of volunteers in Josh’s Fund includes his mother Marla McConnell, siblings Adrianna, 7, and Chauncy, 13; family friends Molly Albright and her children Claire, 13, Abby, 11, and Daniel, 8, all of whom attend the First United Methodist Church in Astoria. Alex, 14, and Ryan Tallman, 16, who are Sea Scouts with Josh, joined six months ago.
“I got started after we read ‘Three Cups of Tea’ by Greg Mortenson,” said Josh about the other side of his fundraising, building schools in Afghanistan. “We started by sending (money) to Afghanistan for Pennies for Peace.
“We just get a team together and set a day aside for a certain thing we do at church.”
They cut ties after controversy encroached on the program, changed the name of its overseas effort to Pennies and Pretzels for Peace and found a new focus. It now sends money to help build a school in Maua, Kenya, for $4,000 to specifically serve children orphaned by AIDS.
Josh’s Fund is always looking for new opportunities to raise money, and it can always use more volunteers.
“Obviously, we would want him to stay,” said Erickson, adding that Josh is eligible to attend AHS in the Youth Transition Program until age 21. “He’s such a great asset to the school.”
Josh said he’s undecided about his future. Regardless, there remains a raft of younger volunteers ready to take up the call.