Kids participate in last year's Books and Bunnies event, hosted by the Harvest Foundation’s Youth Board. Photo courtesy of the Harvest Foundation.

Much is riding on Friday’s playfully alliterative Books and Bunnies event. 

Scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Smith River Sport Complex Amphitheater in Axton, Books and Bunnies is billed by organizers as a fun family get-together to welcome spring. 

To the public, it’s a kid-friendly event featuring egg hunts and outdoor activities. To the organizers, the members of the Harvest Foundation’s Youth Board, it’s a gauge to measure their post-pandemic recovery. 

“The Harvest Youth Board has been working hard to put together this year’s Books and Bunnies Event, and we are super excited to see the event grow this year,” said the Harvest Foundation’s program officer, India Brown, one of just a few adults who oversee the board.

Growth has been a focus for the group, now in its ninth year. The board was created for three purposes: to bring a younger perspective to the Harvest Foundation’s work, to teach students about leadership, and to reach out to the community. 

The Harvest Foundation is a community advocacy organization that funds projects throughout the Henry County area. Projects often focus on youth, infrastructure and the economy. [Disclosure: The Harvest Foundation is one of our approximately 2,500 donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.]

The organization hopes that 2023 will be successful as it tries to put on ever-expanding events while finding new members for the 13-person board’s vacant seven positions. 

The Youth Board consists of students from Martinsville and Henry County public schools, and from the private Carlisle School. It’s also open to homeschooled students.  

Typically, the board includes sophomores, juniors and seniors. Applications, which can be found at the Harvest Foundation’s website, are being accepted until April 7. 

“The Youth Board really looks over the applications and determines who they would like to interview,” Brown said, adding that chosen applicants are interviewed by a panel consisting of Brown, current and retired board members. 

This is one of the few times an adult participates in the board’s affairs. Brown said she and others within the Harvest Foundation take a mostly hands-off approach. 

“Why not create a board that is designed to provide leadership opportunities for young people?” she said. 

To that end, the Youth Board offers its members a chance to largely govern themselves while going about setting their agenda, organizing community events and managing up to $47,000 in grant funding provided by the Harvest Foundation. In its efforts to familiarize students with the ins and outs of leadership and organization management, the Youth Board launches them headfirst into the type of work Brown said might be typical of local government and professional organizations. 

“The goal of the Youth Board is … to empower the young people,” she said. “They control [their own funds], they control their own initiatives. Unlike other [youth-focused] organizations, they have the final word.” 

It’s this freedom that many within the board find most appealing, according to Piper Doughton, a senior at the Carlisle School and a member of the board. 

“My family moved into the Henry County area from Franklin County when I was in ninth grade,” Piper said, adding that she heard about the board when she moved to the area. “I just thought it was a neat opportunity to get involved in the community, to get to know people and make an impact.” 

Wanting to take part in an extracurricular that offered a bit more challenge and freedom than the average school-related group, she submitted her application. Three years later, she is serving as the Youth Board’s chairperson. 

While the pandemic put a damper on her time on the board, she hopes 2023 will be a banner year, particularly for the group’s in-person events. 

“With COVID we didn’t get to go out and do as much,” Piper said. 

Last fall the board continued its tradition of holding a pre-Thanksgiving dinner. The board did not hold the dinner during 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic, making the 2022 gathering one of the board’s first in-person events since the pandemic. 

Piper said the hiatus did not have much of a negative impact on turnout; the event served 2,800 meals. She said it was somewhat difficult getting back into the flow of organizing such a large event, but she described it as ultimately being “absolutely worth it.” 

 She hopes the upcoming Books and Bunnies event will be as successful. 

“We wanted to help get books into the hands of youth in our communities,” Piper said. 

She later added that the event is to promote literacy in the Henry County area. 

“We wanted to create a fun atmosphere that helped put that need for literacy out there to get books to our community,” Piper said. 

Through their efforts to reach out, members hope that other students will be inspired to join the Youth Board in the years to come.

“The board has helped me grow into the person I am today,” Piper said. 

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Correction (3:05 p.m. March 23): The Harvest Foundation Youth Board works with a budget of up to $47,000 a year. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the amount of its funding.

Dean-Paul Stephens is a reporter for Cardinal News. He is based in Martinsville. Reach him at dean@cardinalnews.org.