MANATEE -- John Neal of Neal Homes has launched a pilot philanthropy project, awarding four Manatee High School students with $2,000 to donate to the charity or nonprofit of their choice.
The first $1,000 was given about a month ago, and the rest was awarded to students Alex Servia, a sophomore, and Janaye Brown, a junior, Friday morning.
They were awarded $500 each for the Gulf Shore Animal League and the Manatee Players.
"I wanted to encourage students to support charities, while they have the free time," Neal said.
Neal said that while only Manatee High School students were awarded as an experiment this year, he plans to extend the philanthropy program to all Manatee County high schools next year.
The students selected from Manatee High are volunteers and active participants in the organizations to which they are donating, and they were selected through an essay contest.
Neal said that he looked at their past grades, too.
The giant-sized checks that were presented Friday were a surprise to Servia and Brown.
"I wanted to provide what they can't, which is a big check to their organization in their name," Neal said. "They are learning how to pay it forward."
Servia, Brown and last month's winners, Gabriela Belsito and Taylor Zeisloft, were selected out of hundreds of applicants.
Neal said that they were picked based on the needsof their organization,their time spent volunteering and the quality of their essay.
Audrey Garrison of the Gulf Shore Animal League said she does not know how exactly she will spend the $500, but the organization has important, yet pricey, initiatives that always need support, such as their feral cat program.
Garrison said Servia has been a faithful volunteer in the effort to keep animals from dying cold, hungry and neglected.
"She does fostering and events, and when we need help, she is always there," Garrison said.
Servia said she hopes to see Gulf Shore Animal League stop the overpopulation of kittens.
Brown is hoping the Manatee Players benefits from her donation by using the money for costumes and the green room used for aid during shows.
Brown says the Players is an important piece in the community; her grandmother got her started as a volunteer there when she was in sixth grade.
"It allows you to express yourself and gives you an outlet to show a different personality when you are on stage," Brown said.
Neal said he is looking forward to bringing the philanthropy program back next year.
"Spending free time volunteering is just as important as getting straight As," Neal said.