Bucks organization has helped 655 kids participate in activities they love.
Michael Benoff is into music. Big time.
He’d tap spoons on tables at home. “In school, it would be pencils and pens. He would get into trouble,” said his mom, Sharon Smith of Philadelphia.
She wanted to give him drum lessons.
“Being a single mom on disability, I couldn’t afford it.”
Then she heard about the Plant a Seed Foundation.
Thanks to the organization founded by Gene and Michele Rice, of Upper Makefield, Michael, 14, has been taking drum lessons with William Lohr at the Bensalem School of Musical Arts for the past two and a half years.
He recently won a music scholarship to Archbishop Ryan High School in Philadelphia where he will be a freshman in the fall.
“He’s the new Phil Collins,” the Rices said as they introduced Michael, his younger brother, Chase Smith, 7, and his grandmother, Sharon Souders, of Philadelphia, who accompanied the boys to the foundation headquarters recently for an interview. “He’s turning into the nicest young man,” Michele Rice said.
Michael said that at Ryan, he’ll have a choice of being in the jazz band or orchestra. He hasn’t made up his mind yet, but either way, the drum lessons will be put to good use.
“They have helped Michael tremendously,” his mom said in a phone interview. “He has wanted to be involved in music for so long.”
Like most parents, Gene and Michele Rice know that children who really like a sport or other activity don’t mind practicing to perfect their skills. It builds their self-esteem.
Since 2008, the foundation has helped 655 students between the ages of 10 and 18 who have a talent or interest in a sport, music or the arts, by giving them the chance to learn about and enjoy the activity and make friends with other students with similar interests.
“We have been very blessed,” Gene Rice said. “We believed in giving back.”
The foundation now funds lessons or coaching for about 40 children a week. About 80% to 85% of them reside in Bucks County. Others, like Michael, live in Philadelphia, or in the Trenton, New Jersey, area. Each child receives an average of $1,000 in funding but often the organizations where they’re referred for training will give a discount to Plant a Seed on the cost of lessons.
“They believe in what we’re doing. They take a great interest in the kids,” Gene Rice said.
Michele said the organization doesn’t care what type of after-school hobby the children want to pursue “as long as they’re passionate about it (and) not involved in any other activity.” One boy even got to take climbing lessons because he liked to climb telephone polls and buildings, to his mother’s dismay, Gene Rice said.
Since the funding is limited, the children who do qualify — those who stick to one hobby rather than dabbling in many — often stay in the program for several years, acquiring the knowledge that will help them get into college or other advanced training, often on a scholarship.
The foundation began as a weeklong basketball camp for 42 kids the Rices funded for three years. When they realized the impact it had, particularly on one young boy who had a passion for the game, the couple decided to expand their efforts to help children with other interests as well. Kids who don’t find their passion may have a difficult time later deciding on a career or making friends, Gene said.
Bucks County Judge Rea Boylan has referred children in juvenile court cases to the Plant a Seed program.
“Organizations that help incorporate children to the fabric of the community are essential,” she said.
The Rices realize that not every child who takes martial arts lessons will become the next Bruce Lee, but the foundation’s goal is to provide the kids lessons and teachers or coaches who may help them enjoy, if not excel, at something they like.
“I believe a relationship between a teacher and student impacts their drive and how they thrive,” Michele said. She was a speech pathologist before raising the couple’s four children.
The Rices work out of the office of Rice Cohen in Lower Makefield, where Gene Rice was an executive recruiter before retiring and turning the business over to his children. Since then, he and Michele have concentrated on growing their nonprofit with the help of volunteer board members who also are committed to helping children.
The kids’ parents are very thankful and supportive as well.
“Most are single parents — such advocates for their children, ” Michele said.
Smith said her son wanted to play the drums for years and now is working on writing music for a band he’s in with a cousin.
Michael likes drums because they set the rhythm not only for the musical piece but for the other instruments in a band or orchestra.
“There’s a sense of control,” he said. “The drum controls the beat, rhythm, the tempo and the overall way the music sounds.”
“We’re really grateful we found that organization,” his mom said. “It made his dream come true.”