Whether organizing a kids' charity golf tournament for a local hospital or creating a library half a world away, these winning families have worked tirelessly to change lives -- and in turn, they've changed their own. "Volunteering has introduced a whole new way of thinking into my brain," explains Charlsie Doan, 11, one of our winners. "I think about other people more and really want to help them."
With so many powerful entries to choose from, we were delighted to partner with Disney Friends for Change and generationOn, who helped us with the judging. Our four grand-prize winners (each received $5,000 for the charity of their choice from The Walt Disney Company) and five first-place winners (awarded $1,000 for their chosen charity) wowed us with their energy, compassion, and results. Here are their stories.
The Art of Possibility
The Konkel Family
Melrose Park, Illinois
About five years ago, curiosity drove Shawn Konkel to visit the Maywood Fine Arts building, where the Illinois mom was thrilled to find a kids' tumbling class in full swing. She learned that for 15 years the MFA has offered affordable classes in dance, art, music, drama, and karate to the kids of Maywood, a struggling town outside of Chicago. Students have gone on to positions with the New York City Ballet and the Rockettes. Shawn, who studied dance for 15 years, volunteered on the spot. "From that moment, everything changed in my life," says Shawn. "I realized one place could bring so much good into the world."
The founder of a promotional-product business, Shawn prints and sells clothing with the MFA logo, giving 100 percent of proceeds to the center. With the help of her family, she also plans, promotes, and staffs the Pumpkin Patch Parade, an annual showcase of MFA's students. Shawn's eldest kids, Joe, 20, and Nellie, 18, lend a hand with recitals, concerts, and rehearsals. J.D., 10, and Margueritte, 9, take classes at MFA and help sell the clothing Shawn prints, while husband Don pitches in on handyman jobs. Jack, 5, and Jett, 3, assist with event setup and cleanup.
Since a fire damaged Maywood's dance studio in 2010, the Konkels have devoted themselves to raising funds for the reconstruction. (The rest of the school remains open, and dance classes are held in a nearby church.) The family recently held a benefit show with dancers from 20 other Chicago-area dance schools.
"[The MFA] is good for the town because it's a happy place to go to," says J.D. "And the teachers are awesome! They tell you that you can do anything you want."
Prize Money Plans: Maywood Fine Arts Association
Above Par Fundraising
The Doan Family
Charlsie Doan, age 11, was born without a right hand, but that hasn't stopped her from living life to its fullest. Among many other activities, she's logged hundreds of hours volunteering with her family for Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children (TSRHC). The facility provides treatment for kids with orthopedic conditions -- including Charlsie -- regardless of families' ability to pay.
With mom Kelly, dad Cameron, and brother Tristan, 9, Charlsie helps put on KidSwing, a series of three charity golf tournaments for players ages 7 to 18. The young golfers hit the links in the summer, but the Doans brainstorm, organize, and promote the event all year round. Charlsie also meets with potential sponsors as one of the hospital's "development ambassadors." Her presentations often include her performance of a song on the violin, which she plays with an adapted bow created by the hospital.
"Scottish Rite has given us so much that it became really important for us to give back," says Kelly.
Now in its 10th year, KidSwing has raised an impressive $1.2 million, which has allowed the hospital to put some big plans into action. Among the most exciting is a TSRHC weekend camp for middle-school kids.
Prize Money Plans: Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children
A Recipe for Compassion
The Hall Family
Lori Hall knows very well how all-consuming it is to care for a critically ill child. Her eldest son, James, had open-heart surgery when he was only a month old. So when Lori's cousin, Molly Flanagan of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, started making meals for a friend and the friend's 3-year-old daughter, Lydia, who was undergoing cancer treatment, Lori eagerly pitched in.
Lydia lost her battle, but the memory of her fight inspired Lori and Molly to launch Lydia's Love Project. The program brings home-cooked food to 40 to 50 people staying -- sometimes for weeks or months -- at the Ronald McDonald House at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.
"I remember what it's like to feel as if you're living at the hospital," says Lori. "I want the families to experience a taste of home."
Lori and Molly, naturally, go for comfort foods: soups, casseroles, mac-and-cheese, and cupcakes, to name a few of the dishes they serve on a near-monthly basis. They get assistance from a rotating group of 40 families. On the afternoon before a dinner, volunteers drop off food at the Halls' house. From there, a core team of six families joins Lori, Molly, and their kids to prepare and serve the buffet at the Ronald McDonald House.
The Halls -- James, 13, Camryn, 8, and 6-year-old twins Andrew and Aidan -- frequently turn the gatherings into themed events, complete with music and dancing. A year into the program, they've hosted parties with beach, back-to-school, Halloween, and Chinese New Year themes. The Love Project families mingle with the Ronald McDonald residents, and all the kids play together, creating a sense of normalcy for the sick children during a stressful time. "I like to make the kids feel like they can have some fun and help them forget that they are in the hospital," says James.
Prize Money Plans: The Ronald McDonald House at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC
A Library for a Distant Land
The Vercruysse-Vandeputte Family
Portola Valley, California
The Vercruysse-Vandeputtes -- mom Sofie, dad Ward, 10-year-old Olivia, and her twin brother, Alec -- are big-time bibliophiles. "We're always reading," says Olivia. Two years ago, Sofie discovered the African Library Project, which gives books to impoverished rural areas of English-speaking countries in Africa. It was a natural fit with her family's love of literature.
"Our kids couldn't believe that there were children who go to school but do not have books," says Sofie. "They became very excited to change that."
The first step was to gather books, and lots of them. To get the word out, the family created a website, e-mailed friends and relatives, passed out flyers at school, and pored through their own shelves for donations. Their goal was to collect 1,000 titles, the minimum number that ALP needs to set up one library.
The family also needed to raise $500 to ship the books to Lesotho, a small kingdom in the middle of South Africa. To help raise funds, Sofie sold Belgian waffles and delivered chocolate mousse to order, and Alec and Olivia sold lemonade and cookies in a local park.
Their hard work really paid off. Nine months after they started, the family mailed 1,000 books to ALP. (ALP organizes the transport to Africa.) Included in the library was a picture book made by Alec and Olivia about their life in the United States.
In return, the twins received enthusiastic thank-you letters from the African schoolchildren. "The kids told us about which books were their favorites," says Alec. "And a lot of times I thought, 'Wow, I packed that one!'"
The exchange, says Sofie, has sparked a genuine connection to and curiosity about the African continent. It's also led to more libraries. To date, the family has completed four shipments for ALP, and their garage is currently filled with books for a fifth.
Prize Money Plans: The African Library Project
Congratulations to Our First Place Winners!
Trick-or-Treat for the Food Shelf
The Heuss Family
Brenda and Shawn Heuss and their two daughters, Alex and Maddie, ages 8 and 5, organize trick-or-treating with a twist. On the Sunday before Halloween, kids go door-to-door in costume to gather food and other essentials for a local food pantry. Churches, scout troops, and sports teams unite for the afternoon outing -- with some participants even dressing up as food. (Alex has gone as a bunch of grapes, and Maddie as a jar of pickles.) The family also collects donations for the needy in jars located at businesses throughout the community. Last year, they took in nearly $1,000, along with 2,000 pantry items.
Friends & Family Community CPR Classes
The Hall Family
At age 9, Sierra Hall went into cardiac arrest in the middle of a lacrosse game. Her life was saved by a spectator who knew CPR. The scare prompted her, along with her parents, Shawn and Melanie, and her grandfather, Chuck, to organize CPR classes for their community. One hundred people completed the training, which was led by five nurses from the local hospital and a physical education teacher. The Halls, who also raise money for the American Heart Association, are now planning to hold the classes every two years so that participants can renew their certifications.
Chunkin' Punkins at ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease)
The Hohne Family
Lumberton, New Jersey
Carolyn and Bruce Hohne and their kids, Brielle, age 17, and Carter, 15, have been hurling squash since 2006. They help lead more than a dozen kids through the design and building of a giant catapult as an after-school activity for the gifted and talented program. The punkin chunkin' team unveils its creation at an annual fundraising event for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), and later compete in the world championships. The team has raised more than $10,000 for ALS.
Love A Sea Turtle (L.A.S.T.)
The Sokolovic Family
Winterville, North Carolina
Six years ago, Casey Sokolovic, now age 14, founded Love A Sea Turtle to help save the turtles' habitat. Among other ecominded activities, L.A.S.T. runs week-long summer camps at a science and nature center. The camps feature a field trip to a sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation hospital. Dad Dan, mom Kay, brother Conner, 18, and several other relatives help Casey organize the camps and raise funds so that Boys & Girls Club members can attend the camps for free.
Love Your Neighbor
The Spears Family
Palm City, Florida
Each month, Katie and Dan Spears and their children, Ashley, age 7, Walker, 6, and Sydney, 4, "adopt" a different family in need, whom they learn of through confidential recommendations. Along with 300 local volunteers, they pitch in where help is most needed, whether it's organizing a clothes drive for a family with 11 kids or delivering dinners to a family with a terminally ill child. Their inspiring efforts (and an active Facebook presence) have led to the launching of Love Your Neighbor chapters in other counties, states, and beyond -- there are now even chapters in India and Sweden.
Alicia Potter volunteers as a visiting author at Boston-area schools.
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of FamilyFun magazine.