A Little Child Shall Lead

Sometimes, it takes the young to inspire their elders to help others

Spirit of Sharing

Family Matters

December 21, 2003|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

The last in a series about people who exemplify The Sun's annual Spirit of Sharing Holiday Campaign.

A gift. A child. A blessing. There is something inspirational about youngsters reaching out to others. In the season of giving, their acts of charity take on added meaning.

Maybe it is the innocence of youth. Or a surprising reversal of the selfishness we expect of our children in this cynical age. Or how it echoes the Christmas story itself and the very premise of Christianity -- the birth of a newborn who one day will save humanity.

Is it a miracle when charity begins long before high school graduation? Yes, these occasions are remarkable, but they are not uncommon.

A little girl from the suburbs launches a national campaign to help youngsters in need. A teen reaches out to athletes with disabilities. A young woman chooses to make charity a priority in her life. An inner-city youth facing his own hardships helps the families of seriously ill kids.

The oldest of these good Samaritans is 17. None of their acts of selflessness was forced upon them. Perhaps most inspiring of all is the one trait they have in common. Each had fun. And all would gladly do it again.

MEET THE YOUNG VOLUNTEERS

Acting on empathy for those who have less

Sometimes, the most remarkable acts of charity are made special by their context.

Take Marc Franklin, for example.

For the last 16 months, Marc and his twin brother Michael have lived at Boys Hope Baltimore in Highlandtown. It's a home where a half-dozen young men from across the city are housed, fed, counseled and enrolled in private schools. Their college educations are guaranteed, too.

The concept behind the program is simple: take promising kids who face the problems of poverty and possibly drug abuse, alcoholism or violence at home and give them the opportunities and rigorous education that can lift them out of their circumstances forever.

What makes Marc's experience all the more remarkable is that despite the hardships he'd had to overcome, he's looking for ways to help others, too.

After visiting The Children's House at Johns Hopkins, a nonprofit home for the families of children receiving care at the hospital, the 8th-grader asked if he could pitch in. So far, that's mostly meant helping to clean up -- not an unimportant task in a facility that houses kids with compromised immune systems.

"I wanted to help people who can't help themselves," says Marc. "I knew they'd be able to survive without me and everything, but I liked doing it."

Boys Hope requires the students to perform some public service (chiefly that's meant volunteering at a city food bank) but organizers say this was the first time one of their teens has taken such an initiative.

"Marc is very bright and curious. He has a zeal for learning," says Cynthia Harriel, a Boys Hope residential counselor.

Marc's abilities are unquestioned. The 13-year-old read the most recent Harry Potter book, all 870 pages of it, in a day and a half. Ask him about his most recent assigned reading, Johnny Tremain, and he can describe Johnny's silver-making accident from memory down to how he slipped (on beeswax). He plays clarinet in his school's band.

But until a year ago, his home life was not stable. He had been enrolled in a half-dozen different schools as his family hopped from neighborhood to neighborhood.

For him to find academic success despite those difficulties is nothing short of amazing (he gets all As and Bs at Mother Seton Academy in Fells Point). For him to now have such empathy for others is something even greater.

"You see the impact, Marc is already having on his family. He brought along his mom to volunteer, too," says Chuck Roth, executive director of Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baltimore, the privately-funded non-profit that runs the house. "In order to change a family dynamic, sometimes you have to start with the kids."

Marc, who says he wants to be an actor or cartoonist or maybe both when he grows up, also plans to return to Hopkins soon to pitch in again.

"Some families have children who are very sick. They come from all over the country and they need a place to stay," he says. "This is something I can do for them."

Helping to carry their load

After more than five years of work, Makenzie Snyder has provided a duffel bag, a stuffed animal and a note of hope to more than 28,000 foster children.

Not bad for a girl who turned 13 last month.

"I want to continue this my whole life until I've helped all 530,000 foster children in the United States," says Makenzie who lives in Bowie. "I mean that. It could happen."

Don't bet against her. It was Makenzie, after all, who first approached her parents at age 7 about donating duffel bags to children whose parents could no longer look after them.

It was the result of a chance encounter. She met a young girl under foster care and learned that she -- and many others in her situation -- had to use garbage bags to carry their belongings. Makenzie was appalled and decided to take action.

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