Four like-minded Oak Park moms, Carrie Summy, Nikki Richardson, Shobha Mahadev, and Maureen Heffern Ponicki, believe giving kids regular helpings of service opportunity will instill in them the qualities of compassion and gratitude early on, and help them "be the change" as they get older.
This paradigm of theirs began bubbling up after reading Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains: Healing the World: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer in 2009 for an Oak Park book club.
"With us, having chosen a life to be a mom, we knew we couldn't be Paul Farmer, although I'd love to," says Heffern Ponicki, 43, whose children are 6 and 8. "But what we could do is use that book as inspiration. We said: We can raise children well, and they can understand how to live in this world better."
With the life of Paul Farmer as the wind beneath their wings, they formed the Neighborhood Giving Project. Summy, 38, created a website and Facebook presence, and started spreading the word. They teamed up with Mahadev, 38, who was doing a similar project with parents at Mann School, and NGP went viral, recruiting representatives from every elementary school in Oak Park.
"My daughter is in Girl Scouts, and we do go to church and do service projects through that, but these are family-oriented and family-friendly things to do with your kids, and the focus is Oak Park organizations and getting a little taste of what each of them do," Summy says.
For example, at the Animal Care League, the families took a tour, followed by a dog biscuit bake sale, which raised $500 for the organization.
Other ventures included the Oak Park Conservatory, the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry and West Suburban PADs.
"My first question is always, 'What can a kid actually do?'" says Summy, who herself has four kids, age 2-9.
"So we do projects where they understand and learn all about an organization and how to give back to them, and then their families have the potential to continue on as volunteers with that organization, or not."
Learn, act, reflect
In September, NGP began partnering with the Oak Park Public Library to stage one-hour workshops in the Children's Storytime Room on the first floor every other month.
"Wonder Works [Children's Museum] is interested in us, too, so we are excited to explore that opportunity," says Summy.
In November, she says, the grass-roots initiative will stage another Giving Thanks letter-writing campaign (to policeman, firefighters, teachers, coaches, village officials, etc.) and when it snows, the on-your-own Mystery Shovel Project will reappear.
After each shoveling, the families slip a note in their neighbor's mailbox saying, "You have been shoveled by a friend from the Neighborhood Giving Project."
"All this is our way of pulling it together for ourselves, and it has been fun, very fun for everyone involved," says Richardson, 38, whose kids are 9, 5 and, as of this writing, any day now.
By 2013, Summy and her volunteer staff and board of directors hope to have secured nonprofit status, and to expand programming to multiple service workshops each month.
"What I think is so interesting and unique is that when we all came together with the same kind of ideas about this, we knew it had to be in bite-sized pieces that kids could really do," says Mahadev, whose kids are 4 and 7.
"But to an outsider, would that feel like they were doing a lot? Well, maybe not. But to a kid, it would feel like they did something, and they did it themselves. And that is very cool."
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