Making a difference, one lollipop at a time

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

There was one rule Alberto Mendes couldn't quite get his head around: Don't give candy to the village children. As a poor child in Cape Verde, he, too, had run after grownups visiting from wealthy countries, and he never understood when they just walked by. Now that he was an American high school student visiting the Dominican Republic for a summer service project, why should he say no?

He'd buy a bag of candy at the corner store and give pieces out as he strolled down the street. At first, some of the other American teens were upset that he had crossed the line. They felt harassed by the street children. But Alberto persuaded them to see the children through his eyes.

"That one lollipop, it seems like nothing, but for that kid, it's something - it's a sign of friendship, I guess," Alberto says as he slumps in his chair at the office of Summer Search, the nonprofit in Boston that funded his partici-pation in the service program run by Visions. "When you share, you grow together," he says.

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"They don't want you to feel sorry for them. That's the thing I love most. They have so much pride." When he offered people other things, like a pair of shoes, he says, "I kind of went beyond their pride - I talked to them, like, just put your pride aside a little bit, think about what you can you do to help your family."

Philanthropy doesn't always involve breaking out the checkbook. Often it's driven by a deeply personal desire to meet a need. Alberto and the others profiled here represent some of the creative ways people reach out. The gifts may not be quantifiable on a tax return, but they're the kind anyone can give, any time of year.

By the end of his three-week trip, Alberto had given away all his spending money and nearly everything else he had brought. He even needed to borrow the $10 airport fee to exit the country. His fellow students, who had come to build a school, also donated clothes, backpacks, shampoo, sheets, and other supplies to be distributed by the local church.

But Alberto didn't stop there. Within a week, he was back in the Dominican Republic on his own, continuing work on the unfinished school - and building up the bond he had formed with Santos, a 6-year-old whose mother couldn't afford to send him to school.

"One time I gave him a hat, 'cause the sun there is too bright," Alberto says. "I came back the next day and asked him, Where's your hat? He told me he sold it ... because he had to eat. This kid really touched me."

Finishing high school wasn't even a goal for Alberto a few years ago. He probably would have wound up in prison, he says, if it weren't for Summer Search, which also offers precollege mentoring.

Now he has two goals: applying to college and getting Santos into school. He found out that Santos's neighbor is a teacher and asked her to tutor him.

Alberto is searching for a job right now, and says when he starts earning money again he will save it for Santos's schooling and to fund another visit.

"He's a smart kid, and if he just has that opportunity, he can make it. Sometimes you just need someone to help you out a little bit and then you can do it for yourself. And I just feel like that can be me. I can't give him everything, but as much as I can give him, I'll give him."

Active-duty gratitude

Carolyn Blashek wanted to fight the war on terror. When the military told her she was too old to join the reserves, the 40-something mom volunteered at the USO in Los Angeles instead.

During the buildup to the war in Iraq, a soldier came into the office looking for a chaplain. But Mrs. Blashek was the only one on duty that day. Through tears, he told her he was on emergency leave from Korea for his mother's funeral. His wife had left him several years ago, and his only child had died as an infant.

"He said, 'I'm going back over there; I don't know if I'll ever return, and I don't think anyone would ever care.' And it just tore me apart," Blashek says in a phone interview. "That moment made me realize that troops going into harm's way need to believe that someone at home loves them, and someone needs them to come home - so that they have the strength and the courage to face what they're facing."

In past wars, people could address letters and care packages generically "to any soldier," she says. But because of post-Sept. 11 security, they now need specific names. She decided to be the middle person - collecting names of troops abroad and gathering donations and letters from people like her - Americans who want to show their gratitude but don't have family or friends of their own in the military.

Operation Gratitude was born. From her home in Encino, Calif., she sent out about 650 packages in the first six months - sometimes including personal requests. Blashek recalls digging through donations to find Old Spice products for one soldier.

Earlier this month, she paired up with the local National Guard and volunteers to send 4,000 holiday packages - snacks, disposable cameras, phone cards, DVDs, and blank greeting cards so the soldiers could write home. Most important, she included in each box two pages of encouraging messages from people who had contacted her through Operation Gratitude's website (www.opgratitude.com).

Even though she rises by 6 a.m. and typically works on the project till 10:00 at night, Blashek doesn't take personal credit. "These men and women have taken an oath to lay down their life for me. They don't know me ... [but] they have made huge sacrifices so that I and my kids can continue to live our lives. There's no way I can show enough appreciation for that."

Big lessons from bad acting

"The first thing you should know about me," said 8-year-old Brian Cowe when meeting his Big Brother, Gary Roma, "is I have a big imagination."

Mr. Roma makes documentaries for a living, and for the past four years he's spent weekends helping Brian create video spoofs of everything from "The Twilight Zone" to "Star Wars."

Next year, they plan to use their filmmaking talents to give a little back to Big Brothers. When Roma finishes his documentary on creative uses of dental floss - think prison breaks and a world record for 300 people flossing with one long strand - he hopes to premier it along with some of Brian's short films. Part of the proceeds would go to the group that brought the pair together.

"I think they've got a lifelong friendship," said Brian's mom, Meg, on a recent Sunday afternoon as she made costumes for a school play. "Big Brothers really found a good match, because Brian doesn't like sports or other things that are typically in the ads for Big Brothers."

Brian, now 13, has four brothers in the family who often collaborate on the parodies. But what Roma has taught them about filmmaking is not what's most important. "When I was a teenager, those were difficult years, so I would just like to be supportive," Roma says.

That support often comes disguised as silliness. Asked what they have given each other, Roma answers: "A hard time," with a smirk in Brian's direction. Brian answers seriously at first - "Friendship. Support," but then he, too, gets in a dig: "Pain."

Brian and his 10-year-old brother, Dalton, demonstrate a slow- motion fight scene. (Every movie has to have one, they insist.) They throw themselves onto the carpet, legs splayed above their heads, with the accompanying warped sound effects. But in a more serious moment, Brian says of his mentor: "He's given me a lot to think about."

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