Common Cents Mission: Common Cents, creator of the Penny Harvest, nurtures a new generation of caring and capable young people between the ages of four and 24 by enabling them to strengthen their communities through philanthropy and service-learning.

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Home > About Us > The Story of Nora & Teddy
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THE STORY OF NORA & TEDDY



Common Cents grew from the desire of a four-year-old (our Co-Founder, Nora Gross) to feed a homeless man in 1991. That need led her to ask her father (Teddy Gross, our other Co-Founder and our Executive Director) how she could help. His quest to answer that question gave birth to Common Cents and the Penny Harvest. This is their story.

Teddy and Nora
Teddy and Nora Gross in 1991 atop the first ever PennyHarvest and today.

By Nora Gross, Co-Founder

Like many great ideas, Common Cents began with a good question.

This is my story: My father and I were walking down the street in our neighborhood when we passed a homeless man. For some reason, this man struck me differently from all the other homeless people I’d seen on the streets of my neighborhood. Perhaps it was the way he shivered in the cold winter air, or the friendly smile he gave me as we passed. Whatever it was, I felt particularly compelled to help him–to do more than put the dollar my dad would normally pass to me to put into his cup. As we walked by, I asked my dad, “Can we take him home?”


That was the winter of 1991 and I was four. This story has become part of the legend of Common Cents’ founding. I’ve been asked to repeat it many times, and although I’m happy to retell what I remember, I am reluctant to fully claim the story as my own. It feels a little uncomfortable taking credit for a question I can’t completely imagine myself asking anymore. I still care deeply about my community and those who are suffering in it, but the jadedness and self-absorption of this in-between age (no longer a child, but really not yet an adult) has caught up with me. And there’s another thing: I believe that the question I asked that day on the street is one that any child could have (and many have) asked. The question expressed the pure empathy, sensitivity, and generosity of a certain age, not a certain person. My question was the question of every child.

What was different was that my question did not go unnoticed. It was not disregarded as simply the naiveté and ignorance of the young. So what is really most unique about this story is the fact that a child was taken seriously, respected and commended for her compassion and then given an opportunity to do something. My dad, Teddy Gross, paid attention, and he became determined to find an answer to my question.

That answer came a few weeks later: As my dad was picking me up from a neighbor’s apartment where I’d spent the afternoon, he reached for our key that we always left by the door. This time the key was not just sitting on the counter, but had been left inside a large bowl of change – and earring backs and gum wrappers and ticket stubs! 

It was the same type of collection that everyone seems
to have somewhere in their house: the penny bowl or jar that collects dust, along with all the other things we no longer need. When my dad, remembering the question I had asked about the homeless man, hypothetically asked our neighbor whether she would be willing to donate those pennies to the homeless, she shoved the bowl in our faces and told us to take it immediately. She was eager to get rid of the nuisance and thrilled by the idea of putting the money to good use in the community.

Those pennies turned out to be not only my father’s answer to my question, but also the answer to the unheard questions of millions of children: How can I, a child with so few resources, make the world a better place? Two of the smallest denominators in today’s world (children and pennies) have proved a perfect match! And that is the beauty of Common Cents: we give the youngest of all people the chance to look into their communities, see problems and ask questions, and then answer them with the creativity, sensitivity, and generosity that come so naturally to children–and all this using the loose change that no one seems to miss at all. That’s why nearly two decades later, I am still so proud to be part of Common Cents.

Nora Gross is a graduate of Princeton University where she studied art history, photography and African-American studies. She is currently a graduate student at New York University. She also sits on the Board of Common Cents. Nora can be reached at  ngross@CommonCents.org.

 
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