Teaching Kids to Care
We all want our kids to be altruistic. It starts with us.
Caroline and Helen Otteni’s peanut-butter-and-jelly enterprise started small. After helping to bag groceries during a 2012 family bagging night at the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC), the sisters, then 9 and 7, were fired up about hunger. The nonprofit’s website had a page on how to launch your own food drive, so they began asking for donations to a bin they had set up on their front porch. That first summer, they collected 50 jars of PB&J.
Summers passed. More friends and neighbors started to pitch in. The bin on the porch blossomed into “we’ll come pick it up” and “send it by Amazon Prime.” Fifty jars became 150, 250, 600.
By the end of summer 2017—their sixth collection drive—the family’s coat closet was stuffed five feet high with the sandwich staples. They handed off nearly 1,300 jars of PB&J to AFAC to fight children’s food insecurity in Arlington.
The Otteni sisters’ can-do attitude and desire to give back is no accident. Their mom, Amy, has organized two galas for the Arlington Free Clinic. Their dad, Pete, an executive with the commercial real estate firm Boston Properties, raises funds for the Fairfax March of Dimes. Both girls have helped out with fundraising for Doorways for Women and Families, a local nonprofit that serves families in crisis. As competitive swimmers, they’ve also volunteered with Arlington’s Adaptive Aquatics program, which teaches people with developmental disabilities how to swim.
“I do think kids helping better their community in a tangible way is vital to choices they [will] make later in life,” says Amy Otteni. “We want our kids to see that there are needs everywhere in this area. Sometimes we forget to slow down and look at what could be the person next to us who needs some help.”
Helen, now 12, still remembers dropping off their first stash of PB&J at AFAC’s food distribution center off of South Four Mile Run Drive. She spotted a little girl waiting outside. “I realized this is a real thing that’s happening,” she says. “It made me want to help every year and not only once.”
That ethos underscores the findings of a 2014 Harvard University Graduate School of Education study called “The Children We Mean to Raise.” In well-to-do communities, researchers found, emphasizing achievement doesn’t make kids feel more accomplished and happy. Caring for others does.
It’s also a win-win for parents hoping to save their kids from the riptides of affluenza and entitlement. Sometimes young people just need to be exposed to the world beyond their own bubble.
“One of [parents’] biggest concerns is materialism,” says Kathy Matay, a Great Falls mother of three who teaches positive parenting strategies through the Parent Encouragement Program, a nonprofit that offers classes throughout the greater Washington, D.C., area. “They also mention unfettered access to the internet, rudeness and the current political atmosphere, and how to develop children into good citizens.”
There is a tradition of doing for others in the Commonwealth. Some 30.6 percent of Virginians 16 and older volunteer formally—compared with a national average of 25 percent—according to the D.C.-based Corporation for National and Community Service.
Many don’t wait until age 16 to get started. A recent informal survey by Volunteer Arlington, a program of the Leadership Center for Excellence, whose mission is to “enlighten, inspire and connect community leaders” (full disclosure: Arlington Magazine publisher Greg Hamilton currently serves as its board chair), found 10 area nonprofits alone relying on the services of some 1,650 local kids a year. Young people 12 and under are tutoring, collecting donations and cleaning up parks and streams. Many who are 13 and older act as camp counselors, food-pantry baggers, home repairers, fundraising event aides and more. The ranks of engaged kids are likely even higher, but not all of Volunteer Arlington’s 139 nonprofit partners responded to the inquiry.
“Placing meaning and value on the practice of caring for others…is arguably one of the best gifts we can ever offer,” says Volunteer Arlington director Lisa Fikes.
After donating to the Otteni sisters’ PB&J drive, Grace, Kate and Sarah Clayton Loper (ages 12, 10 and 7) began contemplating a project of their own. The spark came when their father, Brett, read about Leveling the Playing Field, a Silver Spring, Maryland-based nonprofit that collects and redistributes used sports equipment to schools and community leagues and nonprofits in the greater D.C. area. “We looked at a couple of donations we could do and talked at a family dinner and decided Leveling the Playing Field would be fun,” says Kate, who lives with her family in Country Club Hills. She and her sisters are all athletes. The connection made sense.
The Loper girls spent the summers of 2016 and 2017 passing out fliers, emailing prospective donors and then watching the goodies arrive. Skates. Helmets. Hockey and lacrosse sticks. Tennis rackets. Golf clubs. Cleats. Soccer balls, baseballs, softballs, basketballs. Soon, their parents’ Toyota Sequoia was packed to the roof.
“A lot of people will be able to play sports with what we collected,” Kate says, remembering some of the coaches who picked up equipment for their teams. “It was really good to know that we helped.”
Yorktown High School senior Sam Melnick has found a different calling. He spends his free time crawling around behind strangers’ furniture. As an Energy Masters volunteer with Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment, the 18-year-old has taken at least 30 hours this year to show affordable housing residents in Arlington and Alexandria how they can save on electricity, natural gas and water by making their homes more energy-efficient. A typical household can save $250 a year on utilities.
During those home visits, he and his team members caulk outlets and windows, replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, put aerators on faucets, pop water-conserving “Toilet Tummies” into tanks, clean refrigerator coils and supply power strips. In particularly old buildings, Melnick says, an apartment can instantly feel warmer once the leaks are sealed.
Words of gratitude are always rewarding, but so is the opportunity to meet people and listen. “Often when you help people with their housing, they tell you stories about their life,” Melnick says. Plus, the work offers a chance to “test something out, see if I like it” as a potential career path. In his case, serving as an Energy Master also fulfills most of his National Honor Society service requirement.