SALT LAKE CITY — There's a debate raging about how to spell Mrs. Lloyd's name as the Girl Scouts dab glue and glitter on construction paper and decorate a seemingly endless supply of sock shapes.
It matters, because the sign they're making is going up near the teacher's classroom door. Without it, the kids at Wasatch Elementary School won't know to bring cozy new socks for kids who don't have any.
Within two weeks, a gigantic box will overflow with dozens and dozens of socks that will later be distributed to nearby homeless and low-income families. The kids can't help everyone — nationally, there are about 1.5 million children in the very poorest of families, the homeless. But it's a start. The secret to warm toes, it seems, is warm hearts.
This is the season when school-age kids tackle holiday giving with enthusiasm, especially when the targets of their benevolence are poor or sad or often do without. Across town from the girls of Troop 601, students from Oakdale Elementary School have been working shifts at a local bookstore wrapping presents to earn enough money to pay for and serve a lasagna dinner at the Road Home homeless shelter.
Across the country, kids in South Dakota are gathering pennies for refugee families. In Missouri, other students are bringing in items for personal hygiene kits for low-income women who've just had babies at the Grace Hill Health Centers. "Without such gifts of time and service, many people would suffer without having basic needs met," Yvonne Buhlinger, vice president of community health services there, said. "We see extremely needy people and we can offer them healthcare according to our funding, but anything extra that can help them meet their need is very valuable."
One of the best ways to solve a need is to engage children. There are thousands of projects occurring in schools across America. And they are often limited only by imagination.
A different lesson
"Giving and receiving is one of the most basic kinds of human exchange," Marcus Berley, a family therapist in Seattle, said. "It's really important to have kids participate in that process. ... It's a way of showing people we care about them." It also provides children with a tangible kind of power — to make other people happy or safer or healthier, for example.
Doing, giving, connecting to others is also a world builder, he said. "It's my opinion that in general whatever people experience themselves they kind of think the world is like that. We tend to generalize our own personal experience. If a stranger has been generous to you, you develop the idea people are generous and it makes it easier to want to be that yourself."
"No matter who you are, you need to learn to help others," said Marsha Parker of Clayton Middle School in Salt Lake City, who leads service-oriented activities with her classes. Her students recently delivered handmade blankets to students at a grade school and threw a party for them. They divided into teams and planned everything from cookie decorating to making Christmas cards.
"We educate our minds. I feel like we have to educate our hearts," she said. "It's so fulfilling to see people serve each other, and it's a win-win situation for my students. They come away from these experiences feeling better about themselves and they see the world and community a little differently."
"My opinion is that anything a person learns early in life stays with them and impacts their attitudes and future behavior," Buhlinger said. "I think when a child is engaged in activities that put them in touch with others who are less fortunate and they do something to alleviate the situation, it elevates their awareness and feelings of compassion. It also requires self-discipline and self-sacrifice. ... I think it's part of being a good citizen and a good American."
It's a lesson that should be learned young, and schools often offer projects with different appeal. Alice Peck, principal at Oakdale Elementary, said besides the dinner for the homeless, they have giving trees. Most of the kids at Oakdale have financially secure homes. But they know — or are learning — that "other kids, the same age as they are, don't have all the things they do." Last year, students raised money so desks can be built for kids in Kenya who don't have any. "That sparked a conversation with our students and teachers about other families, students that live in our own backyards that are struggling. It's important for them to have an opportunity to give back to the local community, to feel that sense of helping others and remembering to have gratitude for the things they do have."
Teaching kids to give or serve requires modeling it, Berley said. "Words are less important than we think. It's all about what we do. You can tell a kid to be generous and work hard, but if the parent is not being generous and working hard, it is not going to come through."
"Kids need to learn to think about others," added JoAnn Koester, a licensed clinical professional counselor from Idaho Falls who deals often with adolescents. "Teenagers are particularly caught up with themselves. So, giving to others helps them to put things into perspective." Even kids who are recipients of help, like those in low-income families, "can give time, effort and energy," she said. "They can help with serving food at a food bank. Everyone needs the satisfaction of knowing they are important, and serving others gives us a sense of importance."
Charitable acts don't divide neatly into "givers" and "getters." It is often those who have felt great need who are the most generous with both time and resources, experts said. Interviewing for this story, the Deseret News encountered a father, now successful, who is serving the homeless with his children through a school project because he was homeless as a child; a mom who remembers hunger growing up, so she and her child donate to food drives; and many examples of children working alongside classmates to raise money for programs that they may soon need themselves or have already used.
Jennifer Little, a teacher with degrees in special education and educational psychology in Portland, Ore., said, "What I have noticed because I do work and have always worked with the lower-class kids, is those are the ones who tend to give more. ... People in poverty are generous with each other and help each other. I have seen this over and over in the classroom and outside with friends living in poverty."
As Jacqui Voland watched her daughter Cassidy, 10, sprinkle gold glitter on a yellow paper sock, she talked quietly about not always having enough food herself when she was young.
"I'd like her to understand the diversity in the community," she said. "It's not always getting stuff, but giving back. Her wish for the troop members is they become empathetic people."
Parker's students are economically diverse. It doesn't matter. "No matter who you are, you need to learn to help others. And you might find yourself on one side of the coin one day, another on the other. Service is not always even a tangible object. It can be service or reaching out, being a friend, being inclusive. Those are things we all need to learn. I work them kind of hard on a couple of these things, and I like to have them have the experience of seeing where their service goes."
Impetus for giving, is as likely to come from the kids. Parker and others all noted that "this generation is naturally service-oriented, maybe more so than any other I have seen. They are excited to do it and they are amazing people who are fun to work with."
It's certainly true of Sara Ma, a senior at West High who has started service-oriented groups. Last summer, she and other youths in Real Food Rising gathered every day all summer to tend an organic garden. They donated more than a ton of food — everything they grew — to food banks and soup kitchens and other programs that feed the hungry.
I Matter You, another of her groups, has a more activist bent. People are often asked, Ma said, whether they are Republican or Democrat. Her group is neither. "I believe in community; that's what defines a nation or state," she said. The rain that is needed falls on both.
As she volunteers at a food pantry, she feels sorrow for the need, joy that she can touch a family in a tangible way. "I am satisfied knowing I'm here trying to make a difference and motivate others to make a difference," she said.
The digital age has brought the globe together and made needs in one part of the country or world more real to children and adults living elsewhere. Students are inspired by those among them, as well.
When David Jal was a little boy, he was kidnapped and forced to fight in the war tearing through his native Sudan. Eventually, he ended up among refugees resettled in Sioux Falls, S.D. He recently visited school children in nearby Avon, where they had been collecting money for his dream of building a Christian school in his homeland, according to reports in The Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan.
The classes at one South Dakota school wage "Penny Wars." They battle with cash for bragging rights. But they also benefit an area children's hospital. The combatants get points for pennies and lose points for other coins, so they seed other classes' bins with larger coins. A quarter costs that other class 25 points and the total builds.
Students at Bexley Middle School in Columbus, Ohio, have been collecting peanut butter for their local food pantry. AP calculus classes at Bexley High School adopt families. ThisWeek Community News said even the kindergarten kids gathered their still-nice plastic toys to give to Second Chance Toys for distribution to kids who often do without.
Troop 601 helps a food drive, too. This year, said Sherri Hutten, whose daughter Olivia is in the troop, they planned to skip it due to a scheduling conflict. "The kids felt so bad that we did it, too. The benefit is so worth it. I underestimate them sometimes. I'll try to micromanage and it gets out of my control — and more creative and fun."
West High School is gearing up for its annual "$10,000 in 10 minutes" drive to bolster funding for its Family Resource Center. The first year, it was $5,000 in five minutes, said counselor Josie Wankier. They exceeded that by quite a margin. The prize is early release the Friday before Christmas.
It's not the motivator. The kids know the money helps defray costs for a small medical clinic at the school for students and their families who don't have access to health care, that it provides coats and shoes and eye care, among other needs in a tight community that includes classmates and their families, Wankier said.
They also help the Jewish Community Center with a big project to provide items like clothing and shoes to refugees and other needy families, including the elderly. Students swarm in to decorate and pack boxes and have the option of helping the JCC deliver them, said Valerie Gates, English Language Learner program coordinator and teacher.
"What's really cool is we have a big range of kids who participate," Gates said, including refugees who pack boxes for other families in their situation. Students who came to West years before as refugees come back to help because they remember what it was like to get those boxes.
Students' giving is not just seasonal. At the end of last year, West High students made quilts to donate to the International Rescue Committee. Brighton High School has a different project for refugees, signing on to a United Nations-supported project to help refugees who'd been torture. Judy Jardine's class at Indian Hills Elementary made bright flower paintings to give to an orphanage in Africa that had dark, dingy walls. Jardine was inspired by a friend who'd volunteered there and described the place. They also took up a student's suggestion and gathered spare change for those impacted by Hurricane Sandy.
Olivia Hutten, 10, could be speaking for all of them when she said, "I like doing stuff for other people. It's good."
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