Teaching Kids to Care

We all want our kids to be altruistic. It starts with us.

Helen and Caroline Otteni have organized several PB&J drives to fight hunger. Photo by Erick Gibson

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 collected nearly 1,300 jars of peanut butter and jelly for AFAC this year. Photo by Erick Gibson

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.”

Sam Melnick helps to make low-income homes more energy-efficient. Photo by Erick Gibson

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.

During her four years as a student at McLean High School, Rosey Iames volunteered with her school’s Safe Community Coalition. Her job: to ease younger students’ anxieties as they made the transition from Longfellow and Cooper middle schools into McLean High. In this role, Iames fielded their questions on how to handle everything from class schedules and friendship dynamics to pressures related to grades, sports, sex and drugs. The idea behind the program is that students are often more comfortable confiding in older peers, as opposed to adult authority figures.

The younger students weren’t the only ones who benefited. “I’ve used the listening skills with my friends,” says Iames, now 20 and attending Army Reserve boot camp, with plans to begin classes at George Mason University this spring. “I’m more confident, too. I’ve gotten more open-minded.”

According to an oft-cited 10-year-old report by the Corporation for National and Community Service, volunteering fosters greater self-esteem while providing a social outlet, a sense of purpose and a boost in happiness—effects that apparently compound with age.

“Volunteering is good for your mental health,” Time magazine concluded in an article last year.

Studies suggest there are physical paybacks too—including lower blood pressure, reduced stress and a longer life span—though there is some debate as to whether altruism makes people healthier, or healthy people are more able and willing to be altruistic.

Either way, “You’re getting back so much more than you’re giving,” Cindy Walls, a therapist with Sunstone Counseling in Falls Church, often tells teens.

A longtime track coach at Bishop O’Connell High School, Walls is a big advocate of volunteering. “In this area, most kids have the academic thing down,” she says, “but volunteering is a chance to develop some other skills, like organization, time management, accountability.”

Plus, it builds the human connections that have become more elusive in an age of social media, Walls says. Volunteering helps kids develop a greater sense of compassion and gratitude, whereas “on the flip side, if children lack empathy, that leads to antisocial behavior like bullying and disrespect.”

Sydney Marenburg, in character as “Silence Church” at Claude Moore Colonial Farm. Photo by Erick Gibson

Most weekends, Sydney Marenburg, 15, a sophomore at The Madeira School, lounges around her house in McLean’s Langley Oaks neighborhood in a sweatshirt and leggings. Unless it’s a weekend when, as one of more than a dozen junior interpreters at McLean’s Claude Moore Colonial Farm, she disappears into her alter ego, “Silence Church.” In this volunteer role, she wears a white cap, kerchief, petticoat, gown and apron, transporting herself back to the year 1771 and performing actual chores like churning butter, chasing chickens and weeding tobacco fields.

“Are you making lunch?” one visitor to the historic site asks her.

“I currently have an onion pie cooking for our midday meal,” she answers, at which point the visitor’s young son turns up his nose. “It’s good! It’s onions, potatoes and apples. I have sausages for the side.”

“Sausages? Where do you get those?” the visitor follows up.

“We make them, of course,” she says, still in character. “Here. From our pigs.”

Why has Marenburg been volunteering at Claude Moore since age 10?

“It’s fun! You have a sense of accomplishment beyond just what you’re doing at school,” she says. “You have interesting stories to tell your friends. You can do something now rather than wait.” Like bring history alive for people who want to know what farm life was like in colonial Virginia.

Haben Yohannes, who lives in the Arlington View neighborhood, also sees volunteering as fun. She has served as a volunteer camp counselor at the same Arlington County summer camp she first attended as a fourth-grader. She also donates time at her local library branch (Columbia Pike) and at the annual Arlington County Fair, as well as with area nonprofits like AFAC and the D.C. Central Kitchen.
In a way, volunteering is just her thing. “I play sports but don’t see myself as a full-on athlete,” says the 17-year-old. “Me and my family tend to help. At church, with my family or with my friends, I like to show gratitude and give back to the community.”


Haben Yohannes (right) and her sister, Brikiti, volunteer with the Arlington County Fair and other county programs.

For younger philanthropists, formal service opportunities can be harder to find. Many nonprofits cannot accept volunteers under age 14 due to safety concerns, regulations or privacy issues with their client populations. But there are plenty of informal ways to broaden kids’ awareness of the world around them.

Wanting to set a good example for their son, Cobi, Waycroft-Woodlawn residents Judy Palmore and her husband, Neil Kromash, both former Peace Corps volunteers, started out simply by modeling little everyday kindnesses—taking in the neighbor’s recycling bin; giving to Toys for Tots.

Soon Cobi was following suit, offering to help out his teachers at Glebe Elementary, shoveling snow for the neighbors, organizing a book drive for the Arlington Pediatric Center and helping out at the Reading Connection in Rosslyn (which closed its doors at the end of July). Now 11, Cobi recently began volunteering with Food for Others, a food pantry in Merrifield.

It’s never too early to demonstrate values to your kids, says Sunstone Counseling’s Walls, even if it’s a simple gesture, like bringing a casserole to a neighbor who is recovering from surgery, donating old towels to the local animal shelter, or spending time with an elderly person who welcomes the company. “We all want respectful, kind, helpful, self-confident children,” she says. “Kids mirror what they’re exposed to.”

Plus, the spirit of giving can be contagious, says Iames, the McLean High School grad.

“We’re kind of stuck on our phones or watching TV,” she says of her generation. “But if we help other people, they might do it too, in a big circle, and things will get better one step at a time, and the world will be a better place.”

Find a Volunteer Opportunity

Looking for a way to give back? See our latest Guide to Giving for a list of local nonprofits in need of support, including those that offer volunteer opportunities to kids and teens. In addition, the following clearinghouses list both one-time and longer-term volunteer positions of all kinds. Type in your location and see what comes up.

Volunteer Arlington

Volunteer Fairfax

And mark your calendar for the Arlington Teen Summer Expo, April 21 at Wakefield High School, which highlights volunteer as well as work opportunities. arlingtonteensummerexpo.com

Ellen Ryan (@ERyanWriter) volunteers for the NIH Children’s Inn, Rockville Little Theatre and Community Ministries of Rockville.

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