"There's something about gardening that brings out the best in people -- everyone wants to get involved."
The winners of the 2013 FamilyFun/Disney Friends for Change Volunteers contest know that while volunteering is primarily about helping those in need, it has a lasting impact right at home. "It's really bonded us," says 12-year-old Emma Bushman, speaking about her family's cookie-baking efforts. "We're part of something bigger that we're all passionate about." With so many impressive projects to choose from -- building community gardens for people in need, founding a summer camp for kids who stutter -- we were grateful to partner with generation On to assist with judging. In the end, our four grand-prize winners (each received $5,000 for their charity of choice from The Walt Disney Company) and five first-prize winners (awarded $1,000 for their charities) impressed us with their creativity, dedication, and hard work. Here are their inspiring stories.
The Wenzel Family from Walla Walla, Washington
Nancy Wenzel has always had a green thumb, so when a plot of land was going unused outside her church, an idea began to germinate. Realizing that many families in their area were in need of food, Nancy, her husband, Steve, and daughters Katie, age 15, and Emma, 13, took on the task of creating a community garden.
The project grew as the Wenzels mailed flyers, applied for grants, and raised funds by working at a charity breakfast. Over six months, they built 26 raised beds, a gate, and two arbors. They joined with extended family, the Boy Scouts, and local college students to clear invasive species from a nearby streambed and replant it with native shrubs, trees, and perennials. Finally, they added walking paths and benches, creating a peaceful sanctuary. "There's just something about gardening that brings out the best in people -- everyone wants to get involved," says Nancy.
In keeping with their goal of using organic cultivation techniques, over the winter the Wenzels planted their beds with cover crops to enrich the soil. By summer, they'll have planted squash, tomatoes, peas, carrots, beets, and cabbage to feed families at four food banks. Yet the Wenzels are already reaping rewards from all their hammering and digging and weeding. "We learned new stuff as a family and got to work together," says Emma. "We're closer now."
Prize Money Plans: Assumption Church's Food Pantry Community Gardens
The Curry Family from Phoenix, Arizona
"We're showing even the youngest kids that small gestures can help in a big way."
Last fall, Kimberly Curry launched Big Hearts, Little Hands, a community-service club for kids and their families. As she mulled over ideas for the group's first event, she thought about the things that kids do best. She settled upon making art. With her husband, Robert, and their avid young artists, Winston, age 2, Noelle, 5, and Stanton, 6, Kimberly organized Art for Africa, a kids' art sale and fair to benefit Project Peanut Butter, a nonprofit that helps malnourished children in Africa. Publicizing the event through Facebook, word of mouth, and their community newspaper, the Currys collected nearly 300 paintings and drawings from more than 100 kids. The fun-filled Saturday brought in $1,400, enough to feed a village for a year.
The service club holds an easy-to-execute event every other month. The kids who participate can be any age (most are between 3 and 8), and any family can suggest acts of service through the club's Facebook page. "We're showing even the youngest kids that small gestures can help in a big way," says Kimberly.
The Currys were particularly moved by the club's recent Valentine's Day parties: one for homeless children and another for young Myanmar refugees. The Big Hearts, Little Hands members organized and ran games, served snacks, and gave out homemade valentines. By the end of each party, says Kimberly, many of the club kids and their guests were holding hands. "We became friends," says Stanton.
Prize Money Plans: Project Peanut Butter
The Bushman Family from Cinncinati, OH
"It made me feel good to help the kids out and to learn more about their lives."
Alison Bushman and her 12-year-old twins, Amy and Emma, have always enjoyed baking cookies together. After volunteering at a homeless shelter, they decided to help other families experience the joy of making memories in the kitchen.
Now in its fourth year, the Bake Me Home program provides tote bags filled with homemade oatmeal chocolate-chip cookie mix, $20 grocery cards, baking utensils, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and more. The bags (about 1,200 so far) go to foster homes, food banks, and clients leaving homeless and battered women's shelters for permanent housing. "When we delivered the very first bags, the staff at the shelter were so happy!" says Amy, who, along with her sister, sits on Bake Me Home's board of directors. "It made me feel good to help the kids out and to learn more about their lives."
Indeed, as the Bushmans became more aware of area families' specific needs, they expanded Bake Me Home's outreach efforts. With help from more than 200 volunteers, they now create framed family portraits for people at shelters, and they have shipped care packages with cookies to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. To encourage volunteerism, they award grants to kids pursuing service projects.
Alison sees one ingredient as common to their success: simplicity. "Who doesn't love a cookie or a family photo? Our mission speaks to people," she says. So does the organization's focus on family time. "The families who we help may live in shelters, but they're just like us: they want to spend time together," says Emma.
Prize Money Plans: Bake Me Home
The Nykamp/Raynor Family from Twin Lake, Michigan
Six years ago, Julie Raynor and Paula Nykamp's daughter Kylie, then 2 years old, woke from a nap with a sudden, severe stutter. As it happens, Julie is a speech-language pathologist, but when she and Paula sought out local resources for kids with what experts call fluency issues, there wasn't much to choose from. So with help from specialist Kristin Chmela and other community members, the family established Camp Shout Out: a summer camp for kids who stutter.
"There are children who don't even know that other kids stutter," says Julie. "Our camp is a space for them."
Now in its third year, Camp Shout Out takes place at the picturesque Pioneer Trails camp in Holton, Michigan. Children ranging in age from 8 to 18 come from all over to participate in traditional camp activities and sessions with speech specialists to improve communication abilities.
Codirectors Julie and Kristin, assisted by the rest of the family, are busy with logistics all year long. Kylie and her sister, Jordan, age 12, help plan the crafts and activities. Kylie is also Camp Shout Out's official photographer.
One of the camp week's most touching moments is the closing ceremony, when kids step in front of an audience of staff and parents to tell a joke, say thank you, or share a favorite camp experience. For many kids, it's the first time they've spoken in public. Kylie, who is developing normal fluency, says, "It's really cool to watch the kids not be afraid to talk. They all have something different to say."
Prize Money Plans: Camp Shout Out
These five families each received $1,000 from The Walt Disney Company to donate to the charity of their choice.
The Parks Family of North Canton, Ohio: Crayons for Needy Kids
When Warner Parks, age 5, said he wanted to give art supplies to kids in need, his mom, Jennifer, and dad, Jordan, a teacher, got creative. They gathered broken crayons from Jordan's students, peeled off the labels, and melted the crayons in star-shaped molds. The artful ending: 75 crayons for Warner to donate to children at a YWCA shelter.
The Snyder Family of Longview, Washington: Charitable Cookie Sales
At age 7, Erica Snyder set up a modest cookie stand to raise money for the Lower Columbia Cap, which provides a variety of services to families and the elderly. The next year, she expanded her efforts. Her mom, Heather, her dad, Rod, and brothers, Jeremy, age 13, and Cameron, 15, and other families all pitched in, helping Erica raise $1,000. A local supporter matched the funds, and the Snyders ended up with $2,000 for Cap's Meals on Wheels program.
The Tober Family of Sanborn, New York: All-Inclusive Theater
As a child, Melissa Tober spent her summers onstage with a community theater. As a mom, she wanted to give her daughters, Allison and Olivia, now ages 11 and 15, the same experience. So the Tobers raised the curtain on their very own theater group, In Good Company Productions. The 9-year-old organization costs nothing to join, and everyone who auditions -- about 100 kids -- gets a role. Among the shows they've staged over the years are Annie and Peter Pan.
The Samargian Family of Spartanburg, South Carolina: The SonShine Club
Every third Saturday, Ani Samargian and her kids, Aiden, age 9, and Abby, 10, volunteer at the SonShine Club, a center that provides an array of activities -- including crafts, music, and field trips -- for adults with special needs. The family's one-on-one attention not only helps the program's attendees build friendships and self-confidence but also gives their caregivers some much-appreciated time off. In between visits, the family brainstorms ideas for crafts and activities they can do with their SonShine friends.
The Crull Family of Evansville, Wisconsin: Multiple Sclerosis Fundraising
Six years ago, Heidi Crull's mom learned she had multiple sclerosis (MS). Not long after, a family friend received the same diagnosis. So Heidi, her husband, Jeremy, kids Brynlea, age 5, and Baylin, 9, and Heidi's parents, sister, and sister-in-law set out to raise funds for the Wisconsin Chapter of the National MS Society. The family participates in fundraising walks, has organized roller-skating and bowling parties and two "mud" runs, and creates gift packages for their chapter's annual auction. So far, the family has raised $75,000.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of FamilyFun magazine.