Tsunami disaster taps US kids' empathy, enterprise

Moved by a stream of images and their own worries, children collect teddy bears, letters, and $1 per pillow on your bed.

In Brooklyn, Lisandra Diaz, her sister, and three friends went door-to-door selling cookies, brownies, and chocolate cake. In Newton, Mass., Jake Mazza raised $81,000 by raiding his father's Rolodex.

Jesse Taconelli invented a "gratitude tax" to help people figure out how much to donate to his tsunami tzedakah, while four children in Reston, Va., went around the neighborhood to raise money for UNICEF, and students at May Watts Elementary School in Naperville, Ill., launched a loose-change drive.

As the world responds to devastation in Southeast Asia by opening their pocketbooks to an unprecedented degree, children, it turns out, are doing the same. In the past two weeks, they've emptied piggy banks and raised thousands. They've set up hot-cocoa stands and bake sales, planned dance marathons and yogathons, and written letters to children in Sri Lanka.

At a time of year when many Western children are still focused on their Christmas loot, they've shown adults that they're capable of far more. The fact that so many children were hurt by the tsunami is one factor in their zealous fundraising; TV images of destruction that came amid their own gifts and parties is another. To some extent, say experts, kids are responding to their parents' concerns, but they also have strong natural empathy.

"Certain stories and images reach into children's hearts quite easily," says Neil Boothby, a child psychologist and professor of public health at Columbia University. "Having been pricked by 9/11, we're already feeling a bit vulnerable, and a home is a nest - something that's universally experienced by children. There are some things they can intellectually grasp, but things like losing your parents and your home get right into the hearts of kids deeply and readily."

Stefanie Taconelli remembers the night that her seven-year-old son, Jesse, began talking about the tsunami. "He asked me, 'Do you think somebody lost their favorite bear?' " she says. For Christmas and Hanukkah, she adds, "he got everything on his list and then some, and was stunned that somebody would have gotten nothing, and had everything taken away."

She was even more surprised when he told her his New Year's resolution: Instead of saving up for the schnoodle puppy he's been pleading for, he'll start a tzedakah, in keeping with the Jewish tradition of charity, for tsunami victims. When Ms. Taconelli asked him how to decide on a suggested donation, he said "Why don't we count our blessings and figure it out from that."

With some help from his mom, Jesse came up with 18 questions - from "How many kinds of cookies are in your cabinets?" and "How many pillows are on your bed?" to "How many people say 'I love you' to you every day?" - and suggested that people donate $1 for every blessing on their lists. The Taconellis' own total: $63. Jesse e-mailed the list to friends, and in one week, he's raised over $1,000 for Save the Children. He also contacted local stores and got them to donate $5,000 worth of teddy bears.

"It's been a life-altering experience for him," says Ms. Taconelli. "Everyone thinks kids are in their self-centered universe, but I don't know if they're as unable to recognize tragedy as we think they are. As a mom, I've learned a lot."

When the tsunami news started coming in, Emily Oliver, a sophomore in Newtown, Conn., got on the phone with a friend to start planning how to help. Simply by placing jars and signs around the school, her Global Voice club raised $600, but Emily says that's just the beginning. She's talking with her yoga teacher about a fundraiser on National Yoga Day; her club plans to talk with local elementary and middle school students about what happened; and she's collecting letters for children in a Sri Lanka hospital.

"We have to talk about the victims and the stories," she says, noting that one thing that made the tragedy hit home for her was learning that a boy she met last summer had his home destroyed. "You have to make it hit home for other people, because that will make them go and help."

Do Something, an organization that encourages young people to find ways to help in their communities, has started a tsunami fund to help children affected by the disaster, and kids nationwide have already contributed more than $100,000.

Lisa Hotwagner, a fifth-grader at May Watts who helped start the Do Something club's loose-change drive, says she was moved by the fact that "people lost their children and family members and couldn't do anything about it, and kids lost their school."

Jake Mazza, meanwhile, says he briefly considered car washes and bake sales, but decided instead to go where the money was: his father's Rolodex. "I saw France, at first, had only donated $136,000, and I told my dad, 'I can do that,' " says the eighth-grader. "He didn't think I could, but now he's not so sure." Jake plans to keep calling his father's contacts, especially since General Motors offered to donate a pickup truck for every $200,000 that Do Something raises.

Bilaal Rajan, a Toronto eight-year-old, is equally ambitious. He's challenged Canadian children to each raise $100 for UNICEF's tsunami relief fund, and hopes the "Canada Kids Earthquake Challenge" will bring in $1 million of aid.

"It just popped into my mind that children should start helping," he says. "I felt sad that people are dying. And I thought I should help, because imagine if we were there, and we were dying because the tsunami had attacked us."

Logic like Bilaal's is one thing that makes children so generous, says Robert Coles, a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard Medical School and the author of "The Moral Life of Children." "They're very imaginative and very empathetic," he says. "I think children are responding to adult apprehensions, but remember, the family of man is now available on screen. 'Here' is a little closer to 'there' than it used to be.... There's a sense of closeness to the disaster which makes them feel more vulnerable, and makes them want to reach out and help others on the theory that maybe one day they'll need help."

Jake agrees that the distance doesn't mean much. "I can relate, because I'm a kid," he says. "I couldn't imagine what it would be like without my home, my family, and all my friends. Even if they're halfway across the world, the kids there are still kids the same as any of us."

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