Holiday charitable requests can overwhelm those with big hearts but modest means. Every penny matters in trying times, but surely no one believes a $100 donation will end homelessness or cure cancer.

My second grader desperately wants to protect polar bears from extinction, but how do I break it to her that the $50 we gave in her name was devoured by bureaucracy? How might we, as a family beholden to a budget, perform tangible acts of generosity?

Gene and Michele Rice found a way to make their donations have an impact on a basketball court, in a recording studio, onstage, and on a karate mat - places that children go to pursue passions or even fleeting interests. Because when money is tight or nonexistent, as it is for so many these days, extras are expendable.

"What happens to kids whose parents can't afford piano lessons?" asks Michele, a speech pathologist. "Those kids miss out on moments and mentors," sacrificing life-altering experiences and interactions. The world feels smaller and that much colder.

In 2009, with just $10,000 and no set agenda, the Upper Makefield couple embarked on a recession adventure. This week, their Plant a Seed Inspire a Dream Foundation (www.plantaseedfoundation.org) landed a splashy write-up in People magazine.

The national attention thrills, but the couple grow most animated talking about the ripple effect of small gestures: Next month, one of their charges - a high-functioning autistic 11-year-old - will audition for a competitive music magnet school.

A year ago, the young percussionist had never played a note because his parents could afford neither lessons nor drums.

The power of play

Gene Rice grew up working-class in Long Island using paper-route earnings to help pay his way to basketball camp. "Playing sports built my self-esteem," recalls the 55-year-old recruiting executive. "It gave me a group of like-minded friends and a social network."

Michele came from affluence, but blames "wild" teenage years in part on not having a passion of her own.

The couple's four children all excelled in extracurriculars. But as a businessman and coach in Bucks County, Gene knew that kids from the city and suburbs are increasingly being shut out of opportunities by the economy.

What if he and Michele could fund modest dreams? What if they could partner with inspiring instructors and host annual fund-raisers to make the impossible a reality - say, riding lessons for a year?

Temple Law students handled the paperwork to get the group recognized as a 501(c)3 charity. In appreciation, the Rices pledged to focus on "kids in our backyard."

Young people are referred by social workers and the juvenile-court system, though many families find the foundation through the Internet and word of mouth. Recipients must demonstrate financial need and parental involvement, plus a desire to try something - anything - new.

Remarkably, all 150 qualified applicants so far have been served. Each grant totals about $1,000.

Children take dance, study sculpture, design video games. One pursued puppetry. A homeless suburban middle-schooler regained confidence through martial arts. A Trenton teen recorded a CD of her original music, then sang her way through community college.

The difference a year makes

Kurt Snyder opened All Star Kenpo Karate in Quakertown after being downsized from a trucking job. He teaches Plant a Seed students at a discount because he respects the mission and knows what it's like to miss out.

"As a kid, my older brother took karate, but I wasn't allowed."

Tracia Walter runs a preschool, but her husband, an artist with Asperger's syndrome, has been out of work for three years. The Northeast Philadelphia family qualifies for food stamps.

The couple's 11-year-old autistic son, Raun, has studied percussion for a year thanks to Plant a Seed. He now reads music and plays well enough to try out for the Girard Academic Music Program.

"I always knew we would have to play to his creative strengths," an amazed Walter explains. "As a parent, I hated to say no, but I had to. I couldn't afford it."

Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq