Recent Mount Greylock Regional School graduate Mia DiSantis tells an audience of middle school students about her charitable organization.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Mia DiSantis says she knew for a long time that she wanted to make a difference in the world.
But it's a big world, and she had no idea where to start.
Then she and her mother came across the 2009 ABC News documentary, "A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains," and Mia realized that the world is not so big after all -- even if its problems are.
"You always hear about Haiti, and they have so many service trips to places like that, but this was something I never heard about," DiSantis said. "And I was shocked to learn that it was so close to us, but people aren't even aware of it.
"When I saw it, I felt a need to try to help them. I was just really eager to start this. After seeing that, I just knew this was what I was going to do."
What she did -- at the age of 15 -- was start her own charitable organization, the Mine Foundation, whose mission is to help the children of Appalachians in Kentucky and West Virginia who were profiled in that 2009 documentary.
Now 18 and recently graduated from Mount Greylock Regional School, DiSantis was back at school this week to talk with middle and high school students about her foundation and the unimaginable poverty in our own backyard.
"This is one of the poorest regions in the nation," DiSantis told an audience of seventh- and eigth-graders in the school's auditorium. "The hills of Appalachia used to be the heart of the coal mining industry. Once this business started to decline, McDowell County went from being extremely prosperous to poverty stricken.
"Just think about all the businesses in Berkshire County, where we live, starting to decline and going downhill at once. ... Think about your parents, your grandparents, all your family, whoever you live with -- none of them would have jobs anymore.
"That's what happened in Appalachia. Once they lost the biggest businesses that brought them the most income, they were left with pretty much nothing. That's why things have gone so far downhill."
DiSantis shared a couple of individual stories from the "Children of the Mountains" film and told the Mount Greylock community how it can help.
On Friday, all money raised from the final middle school dance of the year will go toward the Mine Foundation. The dance is being organized by Mount Greylock's Students Organizing for Change group.
"The SOC group, when they heard about Mia's work, decided all the proceeds from the dance would go to her charity," SOC Advisor and English teacher Liza Barrett said.
Barrett said that most people at the school, even many of DiSantis' classmates in the Class of '14, had no idea she started her own foundation until fairly recently.
In fact, Friday's dance -- which will feature a raffle for tickets to the new Ramblewild outdoor adventure park in Lanesborough -- is the first major fundraiser for the Mine Foundation.
Until now, DiSantis has mostly been raising money from close friends and family. She organized a Facebook fundraiser that utilized a PayPal account, and for her 18th birthday in April, she hosted a party where guests were asked to make a donation to the Mine Foundation; that event raised about $300, she said.
To date, the Mine Foundation has sent care packages to the McDowell Public Library in Welch, W.Va., the last three years, where the gifts were distributed to children at a Christmas party.
DiSantis is the first to say that she wishes she could have sent more, but she knows that even these small gestures have been appreciated.
"Each year, they send us pictures of the kids opening their care packages," she said. "Some of these kids are excited to get something as small as stickers or a coloring book. And for pretty much all of these kids, that's all they're going to get for Christmas.
"It's moving to see how much they appreciate something so small."
DiSantis has big plans for the foundation going forward. She has filed paperwork to get the Mine Foundation 501(c)3 nonprofit status, and she plans to continue building the charity while she continues her education at the University of New Haven.
She is hoping that the money raised at Friday's dance, in addition to supporting this December's care packages, will take her one step closer to fulfilling a dream to make a mission trip to the Appalachians.
"When I learned about this, I wanted to jump in with both feet right away," DiSantis said. "I had always wanted to start a charity, but I wanted there to be a meaning behind it. This was a perfect place to start.
"I started thinking of something I could call it ... and since this is something I plant o continue to do, I thought of a perfect slogan, 'What's Mine is yours.'
"It's an idea I can live by forever."
To reach Mia DiSantis' Mine Foundation, email her at email@example.com.