83: Innocence in Action

83: Innocence in Action

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Innocence in Action

Truly wonderful the mind of a child is.

~Yoda, Star Wars

My husband and I were walking down State Street in Chicago on a hot summer night with our four kids in tow. We were on vacation, but my nine-year-old daughter Madison could not take her eyes off a homeless man sitting on a bus stop bench. Despite the warm temperature, he wore a heavy coat, looked unshaven and held a sign that said “Please Help. God Bless You!”

On our long walk back to the hotel, we saw a few more people asking for money, holding signs or cups. Madison kept slowing down to observe them, but the images didn’t make sense to her young mind, especially in comparison to the other sights on State Street — from bustling tourists and an ice cream parlor to window shopping at the American Girl doll store.

Madison announced that she would bring her wallet and share her money when we returned the next day. It was a beautiful moment of innocence in action, and a real visceral reaction to address a human injustice.

I have to admit that in the craziness of getting four kids out the door the next day, I was impatient when Madison said she forgot something. Minutes later, she and my husband returned with her wallet, and she gave her first quarter to a homeless man just outside our hotel.

I told her in my most logical, professional, working-mom voice that she would be better off investing her money in a food bank or in an agency that helps more people. When she looked at me with her big brown eyes and asked what we could do right then, I started to explain how I approached my job. In my role leading the strategy for the ConAgra Foods Foundation, I had seen homelessness, disaster and hunger multiple times; accordingly, I had been professionally trained to focus on effective and efficient ways to make scaled social change. My husband gave me “the look” and I immediately understood: Get out of your professional work mode, be in the moment, and listen to your child who is truly demonstrating compassion.

Years later, I reminisced about this moment when I saw other young kids demonstrate empathy and kindness toward their peers after they learned that nearly one in every five kids in the United States live in households that are food insecure, meaning they don’t have consistent access to food. Child Hunger is the signature cause at my company, and as part of our strategy we invest in youth, the leaders of tomorrow, to spark ideas, make change and ultimately have a ripple effect in their communities. In partnership with generationOn, the youth chapter of Points of Light—the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service—we launched the Make your Mark on Hunger campaign.

We provided grants to help youth bring ideas to life. As part of the campaign launch, my colleague released a powerful video of kids playfully talking about food — likes and dislikes — and then the tone changed when they learned about hunger. Their emotions ranged from alarmed silence and shock to tears and statements of “that is not fair;” and they turned those feelings into a list of ideas and actions for change. It was a raw, emotional reaction to what they saw as an inequity and injustice, followed by an impatient approach to solutions. The grant winners turned their personal experience and observations into acts of kindness, and here are some of their stories.

When Brittany, seventeen, was eight years old, her family was evicted from their home in Honolulu and she came face-to-face with hunger. Brittany’s single mom relied on the Hawaii Food bank to feed her family. This motivated Brittany to do something that would help others, and she started a non-profit organization, The Future Isn’t Hungry. Hawaii has the highest rates of homelessness per capita in the United States, and there are more than 47,000 children at risk of hunger just in Honolulu. This is something Brittany is passionate about changing.

The effects of hunger hit close to home for Malik, fifteen, from Norfolk, Virginia. When a nearby food market was shut down, so was the main source of food in his neighborhood. As a result, Malik’s friends and neighbors without cars had to walk three or four miles to get groceries. Sometimes, this meant no food for families because the walk was too far. With the help of his grant, Malik helped organize a food drive in every Norfolk public middle school and high school with a goal to collect five hundred cans of food in April, National Service Month.

Riding in the back seat of his parents’ car after a baseball game in Fort Worth, Will, a sixth-grader, saw a man standing on a street corner holding a sign that read “Need a meal.” This sparked questions from Will, who learned that one out of four kids in his community in North Texas are at risk of being hungry, which is even higher than the national average. This motivated Will to gather his baseball teammates and friends from school to start his own nonprofit. Since then, Friends Reaching Our Goals (FROGs) has involved more than 1,000 kids in volunteer activities and served about 175,000 meals to people in need.

These young leaders were not inhibited by an obsession with logic models, evidence-based interventions, efficiency or measuring grant impacts. They weren’t worried about metrics and scalability and all the other things we worry about as a business that is doing good, but is still a business with all the associated “grown-up” characteristics. The kids sprang into action, just like my little Madison that day in Chicago when she gave a man a quarter. Kids realize that every little bit counts. Admittedly, at times, they don’t think too far ahead, but it is something I envy in them. I have a coveted job, one in which I get to help potentially millions of people, and often I need to think two steps ahead before I act. Success on a large scale can get in the way of spontaneous action.

Now we have found a way to embrace the energy and enthusiasm of youth. The hope is that addressing hunger through the eyes of youth will engender a passion that will carry into their adult lives, and they will drive social change. I am amazed at the abilities of these young leaders to translate a challenge and/or curiosity into immediate action that helps others. My years of experience can be an asset, but when I watch the kids I see the splendor in simple goodness. In the words of Mark Twain, “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” These amazing youth remind me that sometimes it is more appropriate to be present and just do it. As a mom, and as a corporate leader, I keep reminding myself to embrace the innocence in action that I see in kids today. They are a potent force for change.

~Kori Reed

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