Little hands, big hearts

Children share the act of giving during the holiday season - and beyond

Danny and Betsy Nally are still full from Thanksgiving. It's not just that this brother and sister from Westwood, Mass., overindulged in Mom's mashed potatoes, biscuits, and pies. But the holiday was especially enriching this year because they were able to help others fill up just like them.

For the fifth consecutive year, Danny and Betsy, ages 12 and 10, collected enough money from friends, classmates, and strangers via the Boston Food Bank to provide turkeys for families who might have had to settle for a plate of rice and beans on that festive day.

The first year, after Danny got the idea while watching the evening news with his parents, his homemade flier brought in funds for 36 turkeys. The number has increased every year since, and this year, they collected enough for 6,000 turkeys.

They are glowing from the experience. "Everyone should have a turkey for Thanksgiving," says Betsy. To which, her brother adds, "Kids really can make a difference. We plan on working with 'Turkeys 'R' Us' until we can end hunger."

A rather lofty goal, but one that children around the US are tuning into more often. Of course, the holidays are typically a time when people think of giving to those in need.

But Volunteers of America, which has 40 offices around the US, reports that kids are giving in record numbers all year round. For people under 18 years of age, says spokesman Carl Ericson, the number of volunteers continues to increase about 10 percent each year.

Conversations with some of these children indicate a genuine enthusiasm for charity work. In many cases, mom or dad may have initiated the activity, but the children took off with it.

Take another brother-and-sister team, Daniel and Erica Fiekowsky, of Los Altos, Calif. Their mother, Sharon, heard that some children in El Salvador cannot afford shoes. No shoes, no school. So as a family, they decided to spread the word, collect gently worn shoes from friends and acquaintances, and deliver them to an orphanage in El Salvador. In October, they packed 76 pairs of shoes into three computer boxes, and presented them to the orphans in person.

"When I saw someone trying on my old shoes," recalls 12-year-old Daniel, "it made this really warm spot in me."

His 10-year-old sister remembers that friends were a bit puzzled at first. "When they heard about the project, they would just nod and change the subject," explains Erica. "They didn't understand why I'd go someplace not to sightsee." But eventually, they caught on and began digging out their own shoes - and started their own fundraisers. "After my shoe drive," she says, "another class started a collection of toiletries, like those soaps and shampoos you get at hotels. They took them to a homeless shelter."

As kids get older, they often make the switch from volunteering with a parent to volunteering with a pal. With other friends from Sunday School, fifth-graders Evie Barnard and Lilly Harper raised enough funds for the Heifer Project International to send an "ark" of farm animals to needy families around the world. It was a perfect match for them. Since she was 3, Evie has been feeding animals at the Heifer Project in Rutland, Mass., and at age 5, Lilly became their youngest fundraiser when she found a $20 bill in a parking lot and chose to donate it to the Heifer Project. "We both love animals," says Lilly. "And I feel good knowing I might be helping another 11-year-old have a better life."

Making sure children are passionate about their pet projects is key, says Janet Atkins, executive director of philanthropy at the Boston law firm Goulston & Storrs. Ms. Atkins should know. She spends her days matching families with charities. She especially enjoys coaching children. "They learn that life's not just about them, but that there's a larger context for living, and that they have a responsibility to contribute to their communities." As early as age 6, they are ready for this lesson, she says. And eventually, they learn another major lesson, that wealth is not about power, but empowerment. "For these affluent kids, this is a really big deal," she stresses.

Atkins practices what she preaches. Her second-grader, Timon, is required to give away one-third of his $7 per week allowance. Because he is passionate about books and the public-television show "ZOOM!," he donates a portion of his earnings to his local library and to PBS. The remainder goes to the Jimmy Fund, which aids children who are seriously ill. It helps that a friend from school is "riding around the perimeter of the US by bike to raise money for this fund, and I like him," says Timon.

All this giving makes Timon feel "pretty good," he adds, and then mentions 'The Quiltmaker's Gift,' a book he's studying in school that has taught him almost as much about charity as Mom. "It showed me you can be very greedy, or you can change and become generous."

In conjunction with reading the book, his class has been crafting quilts for homeless shelters in the community.

Schools often do get into the act, hoping that if charity isn't a hot topic at home, it will become one. Or that they, at least, will expose children to the concept.

The Primrose Schools, a franchise with 84 locations around the US, promote community service for children as young as 4. Forget just dropping a can of food in a box. These kids take on extra chores at home, spend those earnings on canned food that they shop for (with help), and then donate to a local food bank.

"It's never too early to teach them about social responsibility," says Jo Kirchner, president of Primrose Schools.

As a teacher and parent, Mary Miller has experienced the rewards of collaborating on social-service projects with children. She started a soup kitchen in Quakertown, Pa., where only young people (mostly teens) could work as servers. That was in 1997, and, it's been thriving ever since.

With all her connections at school and through her daughter, Laura, she's never had to scramble to find servers for the one night per month that it's open.

Ms. Miller requires the eight to 10 teens who work there not just to ladle soup, but also to eat with the 35 to 40 people who show up. "They are interesting, often wonderful people. It's good for the kids to learn that," she says.

"Only a small percentage of the people who come here are homeless. Many of them live in hotels on fixed incomes from disability or Social Security funds. The teenage servers learn that you don't have to be homeless to ask for help. It can be a way to tide yourself over during a rough patch. When they realize this, they are less apt to judge."

Part of what excites Miller about this work is setting an example. "I'm at the point where I can give a little back and show kids that this really works," she says, adding: "Who knows? Maybe they'll say later, 'There was this lady in my town who helped people ... hey, why don't we try that?'

"This job only demands 12 nights a year from 5 to 7:30. That's fewer hours in a whole year than most kids spend watching TV in a week!"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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