American Girl Fund for Children

35 Years of Supporting Local Arts, Environmental Programs and Youth

Thanks to American Girl's Fund for Children, local arts and environmental programs thrive

Fund for Children logo

Tanisha welcomes her family to her first art exhibition at Little Picassos. Bennie and Max take turns pedaling the bicycle blender to make salsa from the garden in a summer program offered by Rooted. Sandy and her classmates head out on a wetland walk wearing rubber boots paid for by a grant from Nature Net’s Nature Express program.

These are not their real names, but these are real kids, expanding their creativity and knowledge thanks to Dane County programs funded by American Girl’s Fund for Children. Because of this fund, thousands of children get to engage in arts, cultural, and environmental programs every year.

The Fund for Children’s goal, and the purpose behind its grantmaking, is to support innovative programming related to the arts or the environment for Dane County children, from birth to 18. To date, the 35-year-old fund has awarded more than $11 million in grants to numerous area nonprofits, including Little Picassos, Rooted and the Aldo Leopold Nature Center’s Nature Net program.

Little Picassos

Little Picassos founder Leora Saposnik was a volunteer with the Road Home when the idea for a child-focused arts organization came to her. An artist herself, Saposnik was passionate about children, the arts and equity. She saw that children experiencing homelessness and other economic challenges lacked access to art enrichment. So in 2015 she started Little Picassos to provide a nurturing place for children to create and learn about art and artists.

A group of children painting outdoors at a Little Picassos program

The Fund for Children has supported Little Picassos from its inception. “Their support gives us the ability to provide the best quality artist-grade materials to our kids,” explained Saposnik. “It makes ours one of the best art programs in the city. It allows us to elevate our art.” Each Little Picassos’ program culminates in a gallery opening for the whole community.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Little Picassos pivoted to providing weekly art bags for at-home projects. Saposnik and her staff hosted live online art-making sessions and produced video sessions in both English and Spanish. “We heard from many of our families that the chance for their children to create was a real lifeline” during a time when inequities became more pronounced, Saposnik said.

Little Picassos’ move to MyArts, Madison’s new Youth Arts Center, in 2021 “was a dream come true,” said Saposnik. “We love the idea that our kids will overlap with other artists.” Little Picassos teaches young people about life as a working artist, often tapping visiting artists themselves. Opportunities for collaboration with other artists and programs have multiplied since the move, which is perfect: Fostering collaboration is one of the Fund for Children’s goals.


Youth programs are an important part of Rooted, an organization devoted to increasing equitable access to land, fresh food and learning opportunities. Rooted operates urban farms and offers youth programming at Troy Farm on the north side and Badger Rock Middle School on the south side, and offers youth programs including (in collaboration with the Goodman Community Center) at the Goodman Youth Farm adjacent to Kennedy School on the east side. The Fund for Children’s grants to Rooted help support staff salaries and supplies for gardening and preparing food.

Ginny Hughes started as Kids Garden Manager in 2012 and now serves as Deputy Director of Operations. “Many of the kids we see don't have a lot of opportunities to spend time outside and to develop a relationship with a place,” Hughes observed.

Bronte Adamson, Troy Kids Garden Manager, began as a trainee in 2018 and today leads youth programming at Rooted’s Northside educational site. “I’ve seen how empowering it is for the kids to be involved in every part of the process from spring through fall,” she said, “especially the exciting parts like harvesting and getting to cook and eat what they grow.”

A smiling girl holds up a large beet in the Rooted gardens

The bicycle blender is part of an outdoor kitchen where young people prepare quick, fun dishes like salads and pizzas. Adamson said, “Some kids are not excited about getting dirty in the garden, but they'll cook every time and they love to share food with their peers.”

During the height of the pandemic, Rooted pivoted to delivering ingredients, recipes and how-to videos to community centers so that kids could continue to have farm-to-table experiences.

Rooted’s program’s also sometimes blend art into the gardens, connecting the dots between the arts, culture and environmental aspects of the Fund for Children’s focus. In summer 2022, program participants used natural materials from the gardens in art-making.

The grant’s impact on young people is evident in the program participants who return as employees when they are older. “They’re able to teach other kids what they learned here,” said Hughes. “They’re giving forward, becoming land stewards.” Adamson added, “The most powerful feedback I get is when the kids ask if they can come back with their families.”

The ultimate evidence of Rooted’s impact on the young people it serves? One child said, “this garden is better than the splash pad!”

Aldo Leopold Center’s Nature Net

One Fund for Children grant recipient takes a different approach, leveraging funds to help other organizations provide experiences in nature, rather than providing direct programming. Nature Net, an initiative spearheaded by the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, provides “one-stop shopping” for environmental education resources for area teachers and families.

Nature Net grew out of a suggestion from Pleasant Rowland that the Aldo Leopold Nature Center take a lead role in fostering environmental education and outdoor learning across south-central Wisconsin. “Pleasant saw that all these nature education sites could be each other's partners instead of competitors,” explained Betsy Parker, who has been with the Aldo Leopold Nature Center since 2000, progressing from program assistant to Nature Net Director.

Nature Net’s brings together information from 21 member organizations into one place. It offers families and educators a single location to find hands-on outdoor learning and exploration options. The website includes a blog highlighting seasonal topics and offering links to nature-focused websites and events, and printed Nature Passports, which are fun, fact-filled guides to all the Nature Net sites.

“Keeping elementary-age kids busy in the summer is tough, with so many kids opting straight for screens,” Parker said. “The Nature Passports help parents offer a goal, like ‘let's get six Nature Net sites stamped on our passports.’”

A group of school children pose in their yellow rain gear as part of a Nature Net program

For educators, Nature Net offers curriculum-based resources, a virtual library, and Nature Express, which supports teachers with up to $300 in funding for nature and environmental education experiences.

Before the pandemic, the funding was often used to pay for field trips. With COVID-19, “I decided to pivot the program, to help teachers get creative,” Parker recalled. “I asked, where would a little seed money help? Teachers have used Nature Net grants to buy field guides, binoculars, cameras for outside lessons. One bought raincoats for every student in her class. Another bought rubber boots.”

Parker’s latest addition to the Nature Net initiative has been termed IDEA — an acronym for inclusion, diversity, equity and access — because nature and environmental education should be available to all.


About the American Girl Fund for Children

Pleasant Rowland was inspired to start the Fund for Children because she wanted children to become stewards of our area’s artistic and our natural resources, according to Julie Parks, Senior Director of Public Relations for American Girl. “Pleasant saw the need to support culturally rich experiences for local kids who wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to them otherwise.”

The fund, now in its 35th year, got its start through a unique partnership with the Madison Children’s Museum, where a group of dedicated employees and volunteers manage an annual benefit sale of donated American Girl merchandise. The sale’s proceeds, which are split equally, help support the museum’s operations and programs and fuel the local grants distributed by the fund. American Girl continues to be the largest arts funder in Dane County, and a significant funder of environmental programs as well.


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