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.
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