A young boy in a dark suit and red bow tie plays with boats in the water room of the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry. Two girls in dresses arrive and quickly resort to flicking water at each other.
“I’m a finalist! Stop it!” one hollers, laughing. Her friend flings a big handful of water back, and they race away giggling.
It’s good to be a kid, especially a finalist for the first Wonderific Community Service Award, presented to a local youths for outstanding volunteerism, fundraising or community service.
They play like regular kids, but theirs is a serious business of aiding the poor, feeding the hungry and raising awareness of life-threatening diseases.
Sophia Vann, an 8-year-old finalist, runs the PJ Project to donate pajamas to children like her brother who have autism, not to mention the elderly and poor. She began the project when she was just 4.
When asked why she started it, the little girl with long, curly, dark hair grins.
“God told my brain, and it just came out.”
Her mother, Saritta, applauds her daughter’s commitment. “It keeps her focused on what is important to our family.”
Those who think today’s youths are self-absorbed need to look no further than the 21 finalists who assembled at the children’s museum last week to hear George Stevens, president of the Coastal Community Foundation, announce the award’s winner.
“Who should get it?” Stevens asks the parents and finalists.
“Everyone!” someone yells.
But only one can win, and that is Katie Stagliano.
“She started with a seed of an idea, and it grew into a 40-pound cabbage,” Stevens says.
Katie, 14, is founder and chief executive gardener of Katie’s Krops, a not-for-profit that creates vegetable gardens to help feed people in need. Today, Katie’s Krops (www.katieskrops.com) is responsible for providing thousands of pounds of fresh vegetables to local families, soup kitchens and food banks. It also has funded more than 40 gardens in 22 states.
The idea sprouted with a cabbage seed Katie brought home five years ago as part of a school project. She planted it in the backyard.
The seed grew. And it grew and grew, until the cabbage weighed 40 pounds. Katie donated it to Tricounty Family Ministries, where it helped feed 275 people at a church dinner.
“I didn’t even know what a soup kitchen was then,” Katie recalls. “And I didn’t know hunger was such a big problem in our community.”
At Summerville Baptist Church, Katie and her friends cook and serve monthly or bimonthly dinners for nearly 140 people.
You’ll also find her weeding her garden at Pinewood Preparatory School, organizing food drives, driving a tractor to cultivate a new field or feeding chickens that contribute eggs to her church dinners.
“This has been a dream of mine for a long time, to acknowledge these amazing, wonderful kids that have such a beautiful spirit and give so much,” said Christine Osborne, owner of Wonder Works, which sponsored the award.
Judges included Stevens; Osborne; Denis Chirles, executive director of the children’s museum; and Pam Hartley, founder of Momentum Marketing.
“This is proof that no matter your age, you can make a difference if you set your mind to it,” says Tommy Baker, president and owner of Baker Motor Co., the award’s presenting sponsor.
Meet a few of the other finalists
Amanda Robinovitz was in the first grade and her brother, Alec, in the second grade when he noticed there were no books at the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital to help scared kids waiting to see their doctors. So they began RxRead.
They gathered books from neighbors, garage sales and other places and donated them to patients at MUSC’s pediatric clinics. That was five years and more than 20,000 books ago.
Today, in addition to collecting gently used books, Amanda writes to hundreds of authors, illustrators and publishers. She has donated thousands of new books, pencils and craft books to sick children. Each of MUSC’s pediatric clinics now has a bookcase to house RxRead’s donated books.
A student at East Cooper Montessori School, Amanda is involved with many activities while maintaining high academic standards. Recently, when her brother was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, she dove into a commitment to a local Crohn’s walk, raising $1,300 and participating in the walk.
Second-grader Sophia Vann of Mount Pleasant runs a pajama drive called the PJ Project that benefits local charities. Nonprofits including the Ronald McDonald House, My Sister’s House, Lowcountry Orphan Relief and local nursing homes distribute the pajamas to those in need.
Sophia came up with the idea when she visited a nursing home and realized that people often don’t have as much as she did. She was 4 at the time.
In the three years she has held the pajama drive, Sophia has donated more than 1,000 pairs of pjs. Her goal is to collect 1,000 more this year alone.
Sophia’s mother helps by driving to make deliveries, but otherwise Sophia is in charge of the project and has been since she started it.
“Sometimes kids have wonderful ideas and as parents we don’t listen” says her mom, Saritta Vann. “If we just follow through with what they say, great things can happen.”
Sophia, a student at Whitesides Elementary, also is involved in an anti-bullying campaign, was acknowledged as Peer of the Year at a camp for autistic children and donates her birthday money to charity.
Ty’shon ‘Rocky’ Legare
Ty’shon Legare is part of Cease Fire — Stop the Violence, which is working to end violence in communities. Two or three times each month, Ty’shon goes door-to-door on weekends handing out pamphlets and talking to residents about stopping violence in high-crime areas.
Ty’shon wants to be a role model for other kids who face violence in their neighborhoods and bullying at school. He says that he does this for his two younger brothers because they look up to him.
For two years, Ty’shon also has collected back-to-school items for needy kids. Along with Star 2 Be Productions, he also helps feed the hungry during the holidays each year. Ty’shon also recently grew his hair to cut and donate to cancer patients.
Born and raised on Johns Island, Ty’shon credits the Military Magnet Academy for teaching him the discipline he needs to give back. Now a sophomore at West Ashley High School, he hopes to continue his work in the coming years.
Elysee has made the Basket Brigade, a local project that raises money to feed families in need, her mission during the Thanksgiving season.
In her first year, she raised $375. This past year, she went door to door with printed materials explaining the cause and asking for support. She held lemonade stands, made duct tape wallets and anything else she could think of to raise money. She raised more than $1,200.
When it was time for deliveries, Elysee was at the loading dock where they put together all the boxes. She was hard at work by 7 a.m. and worked throughout the morning until all the boxes were on their way.
Her care for people and positive approach has helped her earn Citizen of the Year two of the past four years at Buist Academy, where she is now a fifth-grader.
In early 2009, Kelsey Bianco started Kelsey’s Closet when she discovered that many students at Mary Ford Elementary School struggled with getting basic needs met.
Like many girls her age, she loved to shop, so she got to work. She solicited clothing donations and filled a classroom with free clothes, shoes and accessories. Parents and children at Mary Ford were able to “shop” the closet for items at no cost.
When the space was needed for classrooms, students from The Citadel and College of Charleston loaded two vanloads of clothing from Kelsey’s Closet to a free garage “sale” and distributed items to those in need. Her orange drop-off bins are a mainstay at Wonder Works toy stores.
Most recently, Kelsey’s Closet set up a partnership with East Cooper Community Outreach, which often lacks children’s items.
Now a Wando High School freshman, Kelsey has distributed Christmas toys and Thanksgiving dinners through ECCO. She also has been a donor to Project Okurase, which donates clothing items to children in an impoverished village in Western Ghana.
Henderson Drolet and Aidan Roff
Henderson Drolet is the middle child of three girls. Harper and Helen are her sisters. She lost older sister Harper to a rare form of tissue cancer one year ago. Since then, she has embraced the big sister role and, at 9, has become the child spokesperson for her sister’s endowment, Hugs for Harper.
Henderson’s most compelling accomplishment was helping her family host the first Hugs for Harper Tennis Championship. She volunteered to raise awareness for the event along with stuffing player bags, loading and unloading items and donating $86 she raised from a yard sale. The event raised $45,000 for pediatric cancer research at MUSC.
Henderson also supports the MUSC annual holiday card program by submitting artwork for card reproduction. She recently found a painting Harper had begun prior to passing away. Henderson added a few touches before submitting the artwork on her sister’s behalf.
Henderson also inspired her school, Blessed Sacrament, to host an annual walk in October to benefit the Hugs for Harper endowment.
Harper’s schoolmate, Aidan Roff, also wanted to help. After brainstorming, Aidan decided that he could sell lemonade, because everyone loves lemonade, to raise money for pediatric cancer research.
His project, Lemon-AIDAN, has raised more than $1,500.
Sophie Estoppey and Clara Pilley
Sophie Estoppey, Clara Pilley and their friends were shocked to find that the family part of the Crisis Ministries homeless shelter didn’t have a playground. They made it their duty to get the children staying there a place to play.
They created Keys for Hope, in which they take miscut keys and turn them into works of art. They adorn the keys for people to wear as accessories and then sell them for $5 each. For these girls, the key symbolizes shelter and hope, and a big part of their effort is to raise awareness of homelessness.
Find their keys at local farmers markets, restaurants and local stores, including at Wonder Works toy stores.
They have raised more than $25,000 and are helping Crisis Ministries pay for a new shelter.