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How Would you Spend $5,000 on America’s Classrooms?

If you had a $5,000 DonorsChoose.org gift card, what classroom dreams would you bring to life? Thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 100 lucky donors and teachers will find out on November 29th, #GivingTuesday.
With over 60,000 projects live on DonorsChoose.org right now, you have a lot of options. One donor received a $5,000 gift card earlier this month, and we spoke to her about which projects she chose to support.
Jami Valentine is a physicist and engineer who became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins University, and holds degrees from Florida A&M and Brown. For her undergraduate work, she studied “nonlinear and nonequilibrium aeroscience”—say that three times fast. Now she’s an examiner at the US Patent office. Here’s how she chose which projects to fund with her gift card:
The first project Jami funded
The first project that I funded was for a high school in my hometown of Philadelphia. The teacher requested portable air conditioners. When I was in High School—an inner city high school in the middle of Philadelphia—not too long ago, [we] had no heat and we would sit in classes with our coats on. I’ve been in a classroom where I’m uncomfortable to the extent where it’s difficult to concentrate, and I was just so happy that I could help that class.
I grew up going to schools where children didn’t have enough supplies. When we read our Shakespeare, the books were so old that the words were rubbed off of the edges, and we had to write in what the words were as we were reading. We just had a lack of infrastructure, a lack of supplies. We had passionate teachers and energetic students, but we just didn’t have basic things.
How she chooses projects
I am a physicist by training, and I’m an African-American woman. There’s not many of us, but we hope that there will be more. I look for physics projects first, and then I look for STEM projects. I always try to check in on my high school—like I said it’s an underfunded school— and I try to see if the teachers need anything there. I check on my elementary school and schools that are asking for like basic school supplies.
This time, with the large donation, I looked for projects that still spoke to me, but were a little different. [For example,] I picked one project where a classroom of visually impaired students is going to learn how to be more independent by taking a train trip. My mother and my aunt when to a school for the visually impaired when they were children, so I’m always sympathetic to people with visual impairments.
Being able to influence so many children and teachers and families, you just never know how far it’s gonna go. Maybe I give biology lab coats to one class, you never know, maybe one of those kids is gonna be a doctor!
Why she leaves a personal message
I know that it’s very challenging to teach STEM classes in public schools that are underfunded, particularly with all of the testing that goes on in some states. So I hope that the teacher will notice, “Hey—oh my god,—a black woman doctor gave this money. I’m gonna show the students.” Because maybe the students have never seen a black woman who’s a physicist or an engineer or a patent examiner, of which I’m all three. So I hope that just the knowledge that a person like me exists will influence the students. If it’s a school that I attended, then I want the students to know: ‘I was where you are, and now I’m doing really well. I’m very happy, I’m content. I’m safe. I’m well-employed. And if you study hard you too can do these things.’
A message for students
Persevere. Just because no one’s done it before, doesn’t mean you can’t do it. I was the first black woman to get a Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins University. [I thought], “Okay, nobody did it before. I’m gonna be the one to do it.” Even if [you] are not in the most ideal learning circumstances today, continue to try, keep pushing, keep [your] own network around for support, and just try to be as excellent as possible.
…and for teachers
Keep the faith. You’re doing good work, and your work matters. You never know which one of your students is going to grow up to be the next doctor, president… You really never know. The seeds that you plant as a teacher may not bloom in front of you that day, but they will bloom.
Advice for the #GivingTuesday GIVEaway winners
There will come a point early on when you feel like Oprah giving away cars, like: “You get books! You get books!” Be thoughtful about how you give. It’s just such a wonderful experience, being able to help so many people. Look for projects that speak to [you].

If you feel inspired, you might just get your own $5,000 gift card soon. On November 29th for #GivingTuesday, every time donors support a classroom on our site, they’ll be entered to receive one of fifty $5,000 DonorsChoose.org gift cards to support classroom projects, backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But that’s not all; the teachers those donors support will also be entered in a separate drawing to receive one of fifty $5,000 DonorsChoose.org gift cards.
Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for live updates during the #GivingTuesday GIVEaway, and keep Jami’s final message to donors in mind: “Just keep being awesome.”

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