Like a lot of kids, Eli Pollak developed a soft spot early on for animals in peril.
On a family vacation at an aquarium several years ago, he turned to his dad and said he wanted to start a charity for aquatic animals injured by motor boats. His dad’s response was “brutally honest,” recalled Eli, 13, an eighth-grader at Madison’s Hamilton Middle School.
“He said starting a charity was a great idea but that I should pick a topic I knew something about.”
And so he did. The fund Eli founded last year, called “Travel to Learn,” is designed to award free domestic and foreign educational trips to Madison public school students whose families can’t afford to travel.
It’s based on his belief that more kids should get the kind of mind-expanding opportunities he’s had as a member of a family that travels widely and often.
“Travel can increase not just what you learn but how much you want to learn and how you approach school,” said Eli, who figures he’s visited 13 or 14 countries.
Seeking a business partner, Eli took his idea last summer to the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that raises money for district initiatives. The foundation is now the fund’s administrator and fiscal agent.
“I was so impressed that this young man wanted to support other students,” said Stephanie Hayden, the foundation’s executive director.
Eli is the only student to start a fund at the foundation, Hayden said. He has raised the entirety of the $5,000 in the fund so far, mostly from donations to his bar mitzvah last November. This fall, Eli is hitting up local businesses and corporations.
When the fund reaches $15,000, it can officially be called an endowment. At $65,000, the endowment likely would be self-sustaining, Eli said. Through interest income, it could then award one domestic trip each year and a foreign trip every third year, he said.
Regardless of how fast fundraising proceeds, Eli plans to go ahead and award the first $3,500 domestic trip late next year. The award amount would allow one parent or guardian to accompany the student winner.
He figures the media publicity around the awarding of the trip will goose fundraising, helping him get to his $65,000 goal more quickly. It’s that kind of marketing savvy that’s boosting the whole effort.
The PowerPoint presentation he gave to the foundation last year included a slide on how to attract media attention. One bullet point said he would work to “build on the cuteness factor of a kid-initiated program.”
Asked about that slide, Eli grinned and shrugged.
“Yeah, I mean, that’s something I have that someone wouldn’t have at age 38.”
The young philanthropist is the son of Seth Pollak and Jenny Saffran, both psychology professors at UW-Madison. He has an 11-year-old sister, Nell.
Next to the soccer ball and pull-up bar in Eli’s bedroom are telltale signs of his globe-trotting ways.
There’s a Japanese mural on one wall, a miniature Eiffel tower on a shelf, and prints of landmarks near and far.
The family lived in Rome for a year when Eli was 9 and just returned from another six months there. He has been to Jerusalem and Athens and Montreal. He can mention in passing firsthand details of the Acropolis, the Colosseum and the British Museum.
“I’m very lucky to have had these experiences,” he said.
Last summer, he attended a Youth Entrepreneur Camp at the UW-Madison School of Business. It helped him hone his charity idea, and he continues to tap business school employees for tips — and donations.
“He’s a pretty tenacious kid, and super positive, which really helps,” said Julie Wood, the summer camp’s director and an informal mentor to Eli.
Eli is working with the foundation on eligibility criteria for future award recipients. He plans to limit applicants to only public school students in Madison, because that’s where his loyalty lies.
“The public schools here are so good,” he said. “We’re super lucky.”
Applicants will need to be middle school students who demonstrate financial need. They will be able to make a case for their proposed destinations in essays.
Examples might include Ellis Island to study immigration or Rome to study ancient civilizations, Eli said. “No Disneyland,” he added.
The best part will be awarding the trips, Eli said.
“By the day, I get more and more excited about this,” he said. “I have not even reached the peak of excitement.”
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that payments to Travel to Learn may be made through the charity's website.]