One morning in Santa Cruz, a man in a dusty SUV rolled into town looking for help.
“He was distraught,” says Chyna Darby in an email. She and her young daughter Reese, 11, listened as the man asked for directions to the highway, any highway. He kept telling them he was trying to find his wife. Inside the car were all of the man’s belongings and his three small dogs.
Eventually, the Darbys figured out that the man was fleeing his house in Northern California, where wildfires were consuming entire towns. “He had lost his home and had not slept in three days,” she says. “He just wanted to find somewhere safe.”
The Darbys helped the man gain his bearings as much as they could. But even after he drove off, young Reese couldn’t stop thinking about the man and others like him who had lost everything. “She felt how devastated he was,” Chyna says. Reese decided to do something about it. Little did she know, that desire to make a difference would only be the beginning.
Kids cope with tragedy in a lot of different ways. Reese and her friends responded by launching into action.
That night, Reese and her friend Brooke Andrews put their heads together to figure out how they could help the victims of the NorCal fires. The next day, they brought their ideas to school and started planning a bake sale.
“It was one week from idea to execution!” says Chyna. “As the week went on, the event took on a life of its own.”
What started as a conversation between two kids was now a movement: students were baking, soliciting donations, making posters and signs, and booking entertainment. Three of the kids even wrote jokes and sold them typed up on paper.
It was an act of kindness that made a real difference.
“The tables weren’t even set up on Pacific Avenue downtown before members of the Santa Cruz community were buying goods and donating money,” says Chyna.
Over the course of just two days, the kids raised more than $1,800 for the victims of the Northern California fires.
The bake sale had a lot more impact than just the donations it provided to victims and their families.
It also gave the kids an opportunity to process a pretty difficult topic — loss — in a positive and healthy way.
“It came up during class, recess, lunch, carpools, and in homes,” Chyna says. The discussions the kids were having about the fires, both with adults and among themselves, made it clear that they were deeply affected.
But after the fundraiser, the students were able to look back and see how helping others in times of need is good not only for the people receiving help, but for them too.
“It felt great,” said Iphigenia Wilder, 9, in a written statement. “I love helping people.” Armiel Goodman, 8, wrote, “It felt good to know that I was helping people in need.”
“The fundraiser was a bit of the ‘art therapy’-type experience,” says Chyna. “The process provided the students a hands on avenue for processing, feeling empathy, and becoming empowered to help … all while having fun.”
The kids also had an opportunity to gain valuable skills from the experience of planning and executing a charitable event.
The teachers at the school used the opportunity to engage kids in different interdisciplinary lessons related to the fire and the fundraiser.
“A few of the older students did research into aspects of the fire that interested them,” says Chyna. “Where do people go if they lose their house? What services provide support for disasters?”
Younger kids were given math assignments to help calculate the profits from the sale and the expense of mailing out the gift cards to the victims. And ultimately, it was the kids who were allowed to discuss, vote on, and eventually decide where the funds raised should go.
Pacific Elementary’s event shows us how kids can have an incredible, positive impact — both on those in need and on their own personal development.
When given the opportunity, kids like the students of Pacific Elementary can use their creativity, compassion, and enthusiasm to do great things and make a difference in people’s lives.
“The big picture hope is that their connection to this event and their efforts to help will engender empathy and a feeling of empowerment that will stay with them as they move in the world,” says Chyna.
“While our achievements may be a drop in the bucket, our hope is this will help those it reaches, and be a stepping stone to greater works in the future.”
That’s our hope too.