The word “philanthropist” is often associated with individuals who give back during their adult years. However, the essence of philanthropy—a concern for the welfare of others—can be expressed by people of any age. When afforded the opportunity to give of their time, talents, and treasure to causes that are important to them, children and teens can also be powerful forces of change in their communities. United Way of 1,000 Lakes recognizes Changemaker and emerging philanthropist Carson Smith of Grand Rapids. Five-year-old Carson and his classmates at Itasca County YMCA, a United Way-Funded program, learn about philanthropy at home and at school. They recently raised funds to feed hungry families through Second Harvest Food Bank.
In many ways, Carson Smith is a typical preschooler. He lives at home with his parents, big brother, an older cousin, and two dogs. He loves to play knee hockey and eat ice cream, and he’s pretty proud of his new ability to tie his shoes. He’s among a growing number of enthusiastic kids who want to improve the world around them.
When it comes to philanthropy, Carson is wise beyond his years.
“If nobody helps people, they might never get what they need to live,” he explains.
Carson has been quick to take his own advice. He seizes opportunities to make a difference, whether by shoveling snow off an elderly neighbor’s front porch or “adopting” a family at Christmas time.
According to his parents, Carson’s compassion for others is the outgrowth of examples he’s received at home and in the community.
“Giving back is a family tradition that we try to instill in Carson,” says his mom Amber, Leadership Program Assistant at the Blandin Foundation. “And he is growing up in a community that is wonderful about giving back with money, clothes, mentoring, and other resources. It’s kind of amazing to watch him internalize those values.”
“We want our kids to know that they can give back no matter the circumstances,” adds Carson’s dad Corey, Fiscal Director at Kootasca Community Action. “There are so many ways to help out. You might not have extra money to give but you can do something as simple as being kind—doing a random act of kindness—or sharing a hug, handshake, or a pat on the back.”
Carson exemplifies the potential for children to be a force for change in their communities. This power was on display in March when Carson and 190 other children at YMCA led a coin drive that raised nearly $800 to feed needy families through Second Harvest Food Bank. After learning about the problem of hunger from his teachers at YMCA Weefolksgarten, Carson took action.
“I emptied my piggy bank and took half of the money and gave it to the coin drive at school,” Carson recalls, adding that he shared his excitement with anybody who would listen. “I told Mom and Dad and [brother] Ethan and [cousin] Alicia” he says. “I talked about it to my dogs and my grandparents. I felt happy and excited about donating to help poor people get food.”
Carson wasn’t alone in his excitement. YMCA School Age Director Holly Neary witnessed children brimming with joy as they poured their efforts into the coin drive over a period of several weeks.
“It was very tangible for them,” she says. “The way we presented it was that $1 pays for five meals worth of food. Kids were bringing in two pennies and saying, ‘How many people did I feed today?’ When you see the kids bringing in their birthday money or money they earned from doing extra chores, it just gives you goosebumps.”
What about the students who didn’t have money to spare? They got involved too, according to Neary.
“The Youth Room (an after school program for older students) has more high risk students, so there was very little money coming in for the coin drive from that classroom,” she says. “The students decided on their own to start making bracelets to sell so that they could also raise money for the coin drive.”
Neary says the significance of the coin drive goes beyond feeding hungry families; it’s also a character-building exercise for YMCA students.
“We are here to offer quality childcare, and that includes helping kids be aware of what is going on in the world around them and how they can be involved in giving back,” she says. “We focus on community service, and as a childcare center, we help out in the community in other ways too.”
It’s impossible to foresee all of the good that is yet to come from the 190 youngsters who practiced empathy, generosity, and ingenuity during the coin drive; but it seems safe to say that they will help lead our community into a more compassionate future.
“The kids have been sharing stories about how poverty and hunger have personally affected them or somebody they know,” Neary says. “These guys are our future leaders and they already have so much empathy.”
Carson’s parents hope to see wide-ranging engagement from kids of all ages.
“The coin drive included the preschool and the middle school,” says Corey. “Our five year old is excited about it and so is our 14 year old. They relate to it differently.”
As for Carson, he has a couple of philanthropic projects in mind.
“We plant a garden in the summer,” he says. “We also pick up garbage in the park and throw it away.”
Explicit instruction and hands-on activities can encourage children’s innate enthusiasm for helping others.
“The coin drive was effective because it made philanthropy really tangible. The teachers told the kids that boys and girls like you don’t have enough food,” says Carson’s mom Amber. “It was really cool to see how excited the kids would get, to feel how heavy the coin jar is. It’s a great visual.”
Carson wants other kids to know that they don’t have to wait to start making the world a better place.
“Anybody can help—even kids,” he says. “Any age can do it. You can buy stuff for other people. If you don’t have money you can give them your extra clothes, or hugs. Just be kind to anybody.”
United Way invests in YMCA’s childcare and afterschool programs as part of our commitment to foster academics, community engagement, and leadership. We fund programs and provide preschool education scholarships to open windows of opportunity for our newest generation of philanthropists.
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