Nysa Martin, 8, has always been a kid who likes projects. In the past year, she felt it was important to start a project that would make the community “feel good,” says her mother, Melanie Martin.
She decided to create brightly painted rocks with positive messages, such as “Smile,” “Be Positive” and “Be Brave.” After Nysa and her godmother, Tatanisha Love, paint them, they leave them in easy places for others to find, including community gardens, libraries or next to mailboxes. So far, the two have left 75 rock messages, largely around the Owings Mills area where they live.
It’s been a great way for her daughter to connect with others, Martin says, and Nysa’s younger brother, Isaiah, 6, has started pitching in on the effort as well. The siblings “have decided they want to be like Batman. When things are negative in the world or in the media, that is their bat signal,” their mom says.
At first, the two kids wanted to hide and watch the reactions of people when they discovered the rocks, but Martin discouraged them. “I really like the fact that they don’t get recognition for it. There is no immediate reward,” she says.
Perhaps not, but the long-term rewards of serving others are numerous, says Ashley Pressman, executive director of the Jewish Volunteer Connection (JVC), a program of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Acts of service introduce children to a “culture of others,” she says. Young children who regularly visit senior centers, for example, are not fazed when they see someone in a wheelchair or using a walker. Instead of focusing on the ways that seniors are different, they can focus on what they can do for others, asking “what needs to be done and can I do it?” Pressman says.
Of course, families are very busy – that’s the biggest barrier to volunteering. JVC’s Live With Purpose program aims to overcome that obstacle by offering families and others monthly opportunities to help the community by creating no-sew fleece blankets or by putting together soup kits. The latter project resulted in more than 400 kits for those who need a meal this winter.
This month, volunteers will make winter cards for more than 2,000 winter care packages that will be distributed throughout the Baltimore area.
Each year, more than 4,000 people volunteer with JVC, and close to 1,500 of them are 18 or under, Pressman says. Volunteerism from all age groups results in 11,000 acts of service each year.
People commit to a project “once they care,” Pressman says. But opportunities have to be accessible for kids and parents to get involved enough to find a cause “that sparks and becomes a passion.”
When Deborah Harburger’s son Jack turned 8, the family threw a “Party with a Purpose” with the JVC’s help. Party goers made dog biscuits and then delivered them to the SPCA shelter. In addition to being fun, the activity was “hands on and low cost,” Harburger says.
This fall, her son, who is now 11, her daughter, Molly, 7, and Pressman’s husband and visiting cousins put together soup kits. “Everybody was participating. The kids measured. The adults decorated labels,” Harburger says. It was a lot of fun and the kids “are learning to take advantage of opportunities as they show up.”
That means the kids are now volunteering at their schools, too. And when they trick or treated on Halloween, her daughter even collected money for UNICEF, Harburger says.
Another group that has welcomed young volunteers is Soccer Without Borders (SWB), an international nonprofit that uses soccer and other programming to help children who are refugees, asylees and immigrants. The organization has an office in Baltimore, but young athletes around the state have come together to collect donations for those that SWB serves, engagement coordinator Stephanie Wolfe says.
For the past three years, Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Walt Whitman high schools in Montgomery County have used their rivalry as an opportunity to do good. When the women’s JV and varsity soccer teams met for matches, the two teams asked for donations to SWB as game admission.
There is another mother-daughter group of athletes that collects soccer equipment and one Annapolis student started a pen pal program between his classmates and SWB students who welcomed the English practice, Wolfe says.
Nationwide, the group has its Ambassador Program, which encourages athletes ages 23 and under to sponsor an activity that is, well, active – a soccer clinic, 5K or yoga class, for example – to raise funds for SWB’s programming. Since 2014, the organization has paired with Positive Tracks, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit that will match up to $25,000 of funds raised. This year alone, SWB held 70 events nationally and has raised $40,000, Wolfe says.
This type of programming is needed, because kids who are athletes are “so busy they might not have time to give,” says Wolfe, who was a student athlete herself and says she remembers how involved she was with her soccer team. Like Pressman, she echoes that it’s important to provide access to volunteer opportunities. In doing so, volunteers learn that there are other students who often don’t engage in what are “regular activities” for them,” she says.
“They begin to wonder, ‘How can I use this privilege,’” Wolfe says. “They realize there are kids that are not getting access to these things that they have.”
A few years ago, SWB started a middle school soccer league primarily for this reason. For many kids that age, their only playing opportunities were with club soccer teams.
Finally, Wolfe says SWB has a family mentor program that mainly draws individuals. They meet with families every week for nine months to practice English, help with homework and provide other positive encouragement. Fewer families participate in the program, Wolfe says, but those that do “really build a friendship.” Another great reason to give back.