Building on Philanthropy

Children are getting early lessons in helping others

June 04, 2006|By STEPHEN HENDERSON | STEPHEN HENDERSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

To celebrate her sixth birthday in March, Gabriella Cinquini of Monarch Beach, Calif., invited several dozen pals to her house. Spread across a backyard, with dazzling views of the Pacific Ocean, were all the accoutrements of pint-sized party-making: a moon bounce, petting zoo, streamers, balloons and a cake with blazing candles that needed extinguishing.

Nowhere to be seen, however, were stacks of gaily wrapped presents. That's because Gabriella asked that her friends forgo purchasing gifts, but instead make a donation to her favorite charity: the Mustard Seed Ranch, a farm in Southern California's Orange County that specializes in therapeutic horse-riding lessons and other animal therapy programs for underprivileged youth.

"Honestly? It wasn't Gabriella's idea," her father, Tony, acknowledged with a wry laugh. "I rather doubt, though, that any child of her age would dream up an opportunity to not get presents. But, when we explained to her how there were children much less fortunate than she, and how she could do something to help them, Gabriella immediately got it."

FOR THE RECORD - AN ARTICLE IN TODAY'S MODERN LIFE SECTION UNDERSTATES THE AMOUNT OF MONEY THAT PARK SCHOOL STUDENTS HAVE RAISED TO BUILD HOUSES FOR HABITAT FOR HUMANITY. THE STUDENTS HAVE RAISED MORE THAN $300,000 OVER THE PAST SIX YEARS, A SCHOOL SPOKESWOMAN SAID.
THE SUN REGRETS THE ERRORS.

Indeed, he proudly reports, his daughter's native generosity ("or competitiveness") got so engaged that she was soon fired up to donate as much money as possible. Proceeds from the party totaled nearly $1,500.

If you're thinking, "Oh boy, that could only happen in O.C.," you're mistaken.

Involving children in fundraising and community outreach efforts is, in fact, a newly popular priority at America's social service organizations such as United Way. An interactive activity called the Giving Game is currently sweeping the Midwest, with online participants numbering in the tens of thousands. And, a variety of community efforts targeted toward youngsters, some hardly old enough to be elementary school students, are sprouting up across the Baltimore area.

At the Stadium School, for example, a group of eighth-graders has organized an after-school art program for children in the sixth grade called Youth Dreamers. (Their latest art project? Photography.) Youth Dreamers is funded by a grant from the Youth as Resources Program, which is, in turn, managed by a group of only slightly older children and overseen by the Baltimore Community Foundation.

One of the nation's largest commitments to Habitat for Humanity, the affordable housing construction project associated with former President Jimmy Carter since 1984, is under way at the Park School. Park students have raised $50,000 in the last five years, are currently building a sixth house in the Baltimore area and are committed to completing four more, for a total of 10, in what is a decade-long effort.

Raising funds and construction work are only a part of her responsibilities, said Jen Webber, 16, a junior at the Park School who is a student leader on the project. More important still is the successful induction of younger children into the program who can carry on after Webber and her peers graduate.

"We talk a lot about legacy. We give lower school assemblies to children in kindergarten through sixth grade where we try to pass along the message of philanthropy," Webber explained. "We talk about what Habitat is, and say it's for people and kids who need homes. Actually, we don't have to encourage them all that much. Once they get a sense they can help, they are so enthusiastic! Even the youngest kids say, 'You want me to raise money? Fine. That's good.' "

Charity is cool

Think of it as the upside of peer pressure. Children want to become involved with things they perceive as cool, which is often enough defined by what older kids are doing. Thus, while kids may be tempted to experiment with drugs, drinking or shoplifting, the power of buzz -- friends talking to their friends and saying "I am doing this volunteer work, do you want to help me out?" -- can create a positive ripple effect.

Before a cousin nominated her to the board of Youth as Resources, Christina Stewart, 18, who graduated in 2005 from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, can't recall ever doing anything more civic-minded than participating in a blood drive.

"It was a big change for me and it was very exciting," she said. "How often do kids my age get to do something like this? Working with younger children, I developed leadership training skills and other opportunities opened up to me. Here I was doing something good for others, and it ended up being good for me, too."

Motivating youngsters like Stewart and Webber is now a priority of philanthropic organizations that have been struggling to find ways to attract new recruits. A concerted effort to target teenagers and even younger people is under way because research shows that the generation ahead of them -- sometimes referred to as Generation X, or those born between 1965 and 1981 -- donate significantly less money than do their parents or grandparents.

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