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Making a difference, one lollipop at a time

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 24, 2003

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?

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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.

"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.