Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Flying High

Nobody knows the cracks in our health care system like critically ill kids and their families, who often buckle under the weight of endless medical bills. Sparrow Clubs USA matches groups of kids -- a school, a class, a youth group -- with peers, near or far from home, who are chronically disabled or fighting life-threatening illnesses. Through learning activities called "sparrow projects," clubs raise money to help with health care and other hardships through community-sponsored service-learning activities. More than just a charitable endeavor, "sparrows" and the kids who work on their behalf help each other in different ways. The primary goal is "to infuse compassion, courage, character and conscience into youth and school culture," says the organization. "Sparrow families should see themselves in giving roles--expressing love, dignity, courage and appreciation to the youth who learn positive life-lessons as heroic young helpers."

(image: Toxiferous)

Kindness is In the Bag

At 7, Makenzie Snyder met two foster kids at the World Children's Summit and found out, among other things, that most foster children bundle their belongings in garbage bags when moving from home to home. That didn't seem right, so she decided to do something about it. Now 16, Makenzie has sent tens of thousands of duffle bags and suitcases to foster kids, often with stuffed animals inside to provide comfort and ease transitions. With help from countless contributors including Oprah and Rosie O'Donnell, she aims to reach all 530,000 children in the U.S. foster care system through the project, which she named Children to Children.

Tic Talk

When you're a kid with neurological differences, often the most meaningful support comes from a peer dealing with the exact same thing. That's what makes Tic Talk such a valuable little book. Written at age 9 by Dylan Peters, who has Tourette syndrome, and illustrated by his friend Zachary Wendland, the book offers comfort and camaraderie for other kids with this often misunderstood condition, which (per the 2007 National Survey of Children's Health) affects 3 out of every 1,000 6- to 17-year-olds in the United States. It's a helpful tool for classroom discussions on the syndrome and on the general phenomenon of transient childhood tics, which are actually quite common, affecting 10 to 20 percent of school-age kids. Kudos to Dylan and Zach for reaching out.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Play-a-Thon for Haiti

Even preschoolers can help their Haitian peers affected by last month's devastating earthquake through Hasbro's Play-a-Thon for Haiti. Hasbro joined forces with youth service organization Youth HandsOn to create a play-a-thon toolkit for kids & families to use. It's a pretty simple concept: Have your kids invite their friends over for a play session (this would make a great birthday party--notice how old-school home/backyard parties excite kids these days, as a novel contrast to the now-dominant Chuck E. Cheese type bashes?). Provide pledge forms in advance, asking them to seek sponsors, just as one would for any other "thon" (bike, walk, dance, etc.). Little ones will need help with this, of course, but kids often are surprisingly comfortable asking for charitable donations, especially in the face of a dramatic, pressing need like Haiti's. For the play-a-thon, adults or teens set up play "stations" for children to rotate through (physical games, board games....can be tailored to age, venue, weather, etc.). The young'uns gather and enjoy, spending 15 minutes or so at each station. The hosting family or group collects pledge funds and submits them to HandsOn by March 31 to earn matching funds from Hasbro. Funds go to SOS Children's Villages for "pop-up" houses (pictured) that give Haitian children dry, secure places to live during the rebuilding process. Get everything you need for a play-a-thon here.

Oh Brother

Excessive homework really gets my goat, but if there's a silving lining this school year, it's that with 2 fifth graders and a seventh grader, I've been forced to share the support role with the kids themselves. Many teachers assert HW is a reinforcement of lessons learned in class and should need little to no parent involvement, but the truth is, in a challenging district kids often do need help. It gets stressful when two or more kids need support at the same time, in different ways and with diverse tasks. I started asking the boys to help each other, especially with test preparation. Although I feel spelling tests are mostly a waste (reading for pleasure, an unfortunate casualty of too much homework, is a much better way to learn spelling), I'll admit it's a pleasure to hear the boys quiz each other on spelling words. For social studies and science the twins will make flashcards online and lay them out upside down to play concentration together, matching terms & definitions. One thing I noticed is whereas I tend to be all business when studying with them--let's go; dinner's not making itself!--I'll hear them giggling and goofing off while they're helping each other...yet they still manage to get it done. The key has been to ask them to help each other only with clear-cut, easily defined tasks. And of course there's enough complicated, confusing work that I'm not out of a job just yet :(


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Playground Pals

The schoolyard can be a lonely place when you're 7, and shy. In Glencoe, Ill., first and second graders can volunteer as Playground Pals who help make sure everyone has someone to play with at recess. Their job? To say "yes" whenever someone asks to play, and to seek out children who look as though they might need a friend. Volunteers are trained (during one lunch/recess period) on initiating & accepting invitations to play. Then they're assigned one day a week for several months to serve as Playground Pals. What a fun way to promote caring and fight cliques.


It's still solidly hot chocolate weather here in the Midwest, but before long we'll have flowers, and sun, and kids' lemonade stands. The drinks always taste a bit better at stands giving all or part of their proceeds to charity. I'm counting on some that benefit the Red Cross this year or other organizations helping Haiti. And it's likely that at least one local kid-preneur will again set up an Alex's Lemonade Stand to help kids with cancer.

Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation started in 2000, when then 4-year-old cancer patient Alexandra Scott set up a lemonade stand to help "her doctors" find a cure for cancer. Despite failing health, she repeated the practice for four years and ultimately turned it into a nationwide lemonade-stand campaign. Alex lost her battle with cancer in August 2004, but only after raising more than $1 million through her campaign. And the organization she inspired has now raised more than $30 million for childhood cancer research, treatment, and family support -- nearly half of that through lemonade stands led by kids of all incomes & ages. How sweet that is.

Good Sports

As fun as it is to marvel at the physical feats that define the Olympics, I also love it when young athletes make the news for caring. Especially when it's directed toward a rival -- like the St. Joseph (Mo.) Benton Cardinals football team. Last September their normally fierce adversaries, the Maryville Spoofhounds, did nothing to stop Cardinals running back Matt Ziesel, a freshman with Down syndrome, from running more than 60 yards to put the Cardinals on the scoreboard. And both teams celebrated his moment of triumph.

Now if only those crazed, win-at-all-costs sports parents we keep hearing about would follow their lead.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Party of Four

I'm lucky. Even in the pesky tween stage, my kids still let me read with them at bedtime. We just finished an awesome book that's all about kids helping kids. (And helping adults. And saving the world. Why not?) If you haven't already read it, check out Trenton Lee Stewart's The Mysterious Benedict Society. The 4 lonely protagonists are drawn together by a newspaper ad -- "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" -- and go on to fight a mind-controlling megolomanic in this smart, witty, suspenseful tale. I wondered a bit about the "gifted" angle but was quickly won over by how Stewart frames giftedness. One of the kids is a classic academic genius, another has amazing physical skills (and nerve to match), the third is rich in emotional intelligence, and the fourth kid seems endowed only with cranky stubbornness--until the end, when we see what a strong will can do when other gifts fail. Through it all, they stick together. Kid power at its best!

Warmly Yours

Project Linus offers a simple way for kids & parents to help children who are ill, traumatized, or otherwise in need. A no-sew fleece blanket is a great independent project for older kids or family endeavor for little ones. This works as a class project, too. A parent can cut the edges in advance, so all the kids have to do is knot them up. Drop the finished product off at a Project Linus location and they'll deliver it to a child in need.


In the Pink

Okay, so I griped when a note came home from school asking all kids to wear pink shirts for an anti-bullying day. We had 3 kids but only 1 pink shirt. And wasn't this just lip service? (Or back service, as the case may be?) What good is garb without systemic change and a day-in, day-out, all-hands-on-deck commitment to a safe school environment for all kids?

Then I tracked down the story behind the pink shirts. And you know, it's pretty cool. Back in '07, a ninth-grade Nova Scotia boy was harrassed for wearing a pink shirt to school. Bullies called him gay and threatened to beat him up.

Two 12th graders, David Shepherd and Travis Price (pictured), heard the news and decided to take action. They bought 50 pink shirts at a discount store and emailed classmates to create a "sea of pink" (their words) the next day at school. Hundreds more students wore their own pink clothes, some head to toe.

When the bullied student saw that sea of pink, said Shepherd, "it looked like there was a big weight lifted off his shoulders."

Next time that note comes home from school? You'll find me shirt shopping at the discount store.
(photo: CBC News)