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This article by Michele Alperin was prepared for the December 20,
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Kids for Kids: Carly Rothman
Kids have lots of good ideas, but most of them get
lost in a no-man’s land of good intentions, insufficient perseverance,
and the exigencies of the moment. Sometimes, though, an idea incubates
in the energy and idealism of childhood until it develops into a
with a momentum of its own.
Carly Rothman, a junior at Princeton High School, had a great idea
when she was six and now, at 17, is head of a thriving nonprofit
Kids-for-Kids of New Jersey Inc., that galvanizes privileged high
school students to help disadvantaged children. These high-schoolers
run drives and walkathons, and they engage in "acts of loving
kindness" with kids who are abused, emotionally disturbed,
terminally ill, and physically disabled.
What makes Kids-for-Kids unique is that it allows kids to be both
the organizers and the actors in community service and fundraising
ventures. Although there are many community service opportunities
for adults, kids can have difficulty finding activities appropriate
to their age and capabilities. Realizing that "kids couldn’t do
things that were appropriate, safe, fun, exciting, interesting, and
reasonable for them to want to do," Carly created Kids-for-Kids
to "give kids an opportunity to do meaningful work." She was
one of six winners for this year’s prestigious Seventeen
Girl volunteerism award.
But Carly did not begin her community service journey with an
in mind. When she began, she was just a little kid herself. "I
was six years old when I decided I had to do something about the
says Carly. That year her grandparents moved to Manhattan, and when
she visited them, she observed homeless people on the streets and
wanted to know why. In child-appropriate ways, her parents explained
the causes of homelessness as well as ways she could help fight it.
"Throughout my childhood my parents showed me where there was
injustice, discomfort, and need," explains Carly. "They also
explained different programs that exist to help people in need and
things we could do as a family to help out. We walked in walkathons,
gave to drives, and talked as a family about why giving was
Carly’s concerns did not remain theoretical, and early
on she entertained ways to put her service ideas into practice.
I was seven, I wanted to start a `Help the Homeless’ club," she
remembers. However, even her usually very supportive parents were
not crazy about the idea of her opening a lemonade stand on the steps
of South Orange’s City Hall to raise money for the homeless.
When Carly was 11 and in the fifth grade, the confluence of two events
provided the impetus for Kids-for-Kids. One was a teacher who
that kids in shelters either did not have underwear or wore underwear
in great disrepair. "I was shocked at this," says Carly.
is something that you take for granted. It is the first thing you
put on in the morning."
The second definitive event occurred when Carly’s family walked in
the AIDS Walk NY. Her father, Andrew, is assistant dean for academic
administration at Rutgers Law School in Newark. Her mother, Beth,
directs the physical therapist assistant program at Union County
and does homecare, part-time, for the Medical Center of Princeton.
She has a younger sister, Daryl, who is currently playing the Ghost
of Christmas Past for McCarter Theater’s "Christmas Carol."
At the AIDS walk Carly was impressed with the size of the crowd, its
idealism, and the amount of money raised. "Here I was with my
family and millions of others united for a cause," she says. The
next day she learned that the walkathon had raised $4.1 million, and
an idea was born.
The idea of a walk-a-thon bubbled for awhile on the back burner of
Carly’s sympathetic imagination. It came to a boil when, after
schools, Carly broached the idea of a walkathon to her new friend,
Elana Spungen Bildner. Not at all reticent, she said, "I had this
idea a long time ago about kids doing something to change the world.
Would you be willing to help me?" Elana agreed to help Carly
a walkathon to raise money for disadvantaged kids, and it is little
surprise that Carly and Elana decided that the walkathon would collect
funds for underwear.
The first walkathon was tough. People were skeptical, because the
girls were starting without a track record. But, says Carly, "our
parents were supportive, and we were supportive of each other."
Carly’s little sister Daryl was also supportive; at six, she designed
the Kids-for-Kids logo. The Community Food Bank of NJ, where Elana’s
parents were on the board, helped out, too, sharing its nonprofit
tax-exempt status as well as its knowledge of community organizations.
Motivated by their vision of kids helping kids, the girls spoke at
schools and at church and temple youth groups. That first year the
girls’ goals were modest. Carly remembers that she and Elana said
to each other, "Wouldn’t it be great if we raised $100? It would
be so unreal. We could buy 20 packs of underwear!" But, against
the odds, that first walkathon was successful beyond the girls’
dreams. These two 11-year-olds raised $6,000 and had money for lots
of underwear, as well as plenty of socks and tights. "Our success
was rewarding," maintains Carly, "because it proved we could
do what we set our minds to."
Carly attributes her own interest and heavy involvement in community
service to her parents’ belief that their own good fortune obligates
them to share with the community. "Both of my parents feel very
lucky for the things they have. My whole childhood, when something
good would happen, my mom would say, `We’re so lucky.’ This gave me
the sense that I had a lot of things that others don’t have, and that
if I have luck, I should share it."
To make sure there is money to support that sharing, the walkathon
remains Kids-for-Kids’ central fundraising effort of the Kids-for-Kids
organization (this year’s will take place on Sunday, May 20). The
second walkathon in 1997, dubbed "Walk-to-Warm," earned about
$9,000 for the purchase of brand new coats, sweat clothes, and gloves
for needy kids. Since 1998, the yearly walkathon has been called
and has raised money for brand new backpacks filled with school
and school supplies. (This organization is not related to one with
a similar name, the Kids for Kids Project, a Manhattan-based
troupe that raises funds for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.)
How does Kids-for-Kids decide what to purchase with its walkathon
funds? "A lot of the ideas come from my own experience as a
says Carly. "What is there in my life that I take for granted
that I would miss?" As to the rationale for school supplies, she
explains that students always look forward to getting a new binder
and backpack at the beginning of the year: "How would people
me to do well in school if I didn’t have paper to write on, etc.?
It doesn’t seem like a life or death thing, but it’s extremely
to have new school supplies."
In addition to the walkathon, Kids-for-Kids runs two yearly drives:
a winter holiday drive, which collects personal items, and a spring
Art-for-All art supplies drive. The idea for Art-for-All grew from
Carly’s sense of identification and empathy with needy kids. The
was a conversation with a nursery director, who described
stealing crayons, because they did not have any at home.
Carly relates her own shock that a small child would feel compelled
to steal an item that was readily available in privileged households.
"When I was little, we always had markers, crayons, and
she says. "Although art supplies may seem trite, Art-for-All
things that kids want that they couldn’t otherwise have." She
maintains that it is not just the necessities of life that are
"We try to provide fun for the kids. For a lot of these kids,
I can’t imagine their having a lot of fun in their day-to-day
As Carly matured, she realized that the obligation to serve went
simply collecting money; it also required "acts of loving
She says, "I think there is a very important distinction between
giving money and giving time, energy, and love — giving of one’s
self — and I thought that we weren’t having enough of a personal
relationship with the kids we were helping." It bothered Carly
that when confronted with the myriad requests for help that go home
from school or religious school, the first reflex of many suburban
kids was to have their parents write a check.
Today Kids-for-Kids sponsors a range of parties and
field trips, where high school students can become personally involved
with disadvantaged kids. Kids-for-Kids participants also provide
children with personalized birthday gifts and cards, and they have
accompanied the kids to productions at the New Jersey Ballet Company,
the Paper Mill Theater, McCarter Theater, and Sesame Street, using
donated tickets. The Princeton High School chapter has developed
with kids in two Mercer county programs, the Ewing-based Children’s
Day School of the Family Guidance Center in Princeton and Anchor House
It is not always easy for privileged high school students to involve
themselves personally with needy kids. "We try to show kids who
are in privileged situations that everyone has something to give and
that writing a check isn’t enough," says Carly. She believes that
everyone has something to share and that things as modest as a smile
or homework help can go a long way in supporting a kid in need.
The relationships can become very intense. "Kids call me `Mommy’
sometimes. It’s heartbreaking," says Carly. But the high school
students like this interaction, fostered by parties and field trips,
best of all. Carly explains why: "They have established very
relationships. They get immediate results. It’s fun. And they get
to see the effect that their work is having on the kids."
Carly believes that Kids-for-Kids is also about education. She finds
that privileged kids carry around a faulty "image" of who
a needy kid is. Through her own hands-on experiences in Kids-for-Kids,
she has learned that needy kids "are just kids who need a little
bit more." She explains that being with the kids "breaks down
the barrier of ‘Hey, you’re in need, and I am not.’ The experience
[in Kids-for-Kids] helps kids be more comfortable with kids in need
and shows them they can make a difference in kids’ lives."
Kids-for-Kids has become a more sophisticated organization, in line
with the growing expertise of its executive director, and is now
as an umbrella group with chapters at different high schools. Today
there are six chapters in central and northern Jersey and one in
Each chapter agrees to participate in the triumvirate of projects
central to the Kids-for-Kids mission: the winter holiday and
drives, and, of course, the Walk-for-Chalk. Each chapter has its own
coordinator and runs its own local activities. As executive director
of the umbrella organization, Carly mentors the chapter coordinators
and provides each new chapter with a kit containing essential papers
and suggestions for developing a successful chapter.
Carly describes the high school students who participate in
as "bright and energetic and creative and really excited to be
taking a stand and making a difference." Even the core members,
who meet weekly for planning, are active in other activities.
always running off to other meetings. It is a problem for me, too.
I’m involved in school drama, and I’m the arts and features editor
on the school newspaper," says Carly.
If the organization bolsters the overall image of kids, it also exerts
a positive influence on each participant’s self-perception. Says
"A lot of time kids have potential that we don’t get credit for.
Teenagers get a lot of bad press. It is important for our total image
that we can do things that are good." Kids-for-Kids gives kids
a chance to grow and to feel that, on a personal level, they can make
Although many high school students join Kids-for-Kids out of a feeling
of altruism and obligation, some join simply to fulfill the 50
service hours required for Princeton sophomores. Students often sign
up for the organization that provides the quickest and easiest
of that requirement, says Carly, and then drop out after 50 hours.
Such motivations frustrate Carly and have caused manpower shortages
in Kids-for-Kids projects.
While Carly recognizes the benefits of a service requirement, she
believes that "having hours quantifies giving." Community
service, she believes, is not about fulfilling hours or having
to write on a transcript. "Kids-for-Kids is so much more
to me than something to put on college applications." Despite
her misgivings, Carly admits that some kids have gotten extremely
involved because of the initial service requirement. She also says
that the high school has been very supportive of Kids-for-Kids and
that the service requirement "got our name out there."
Carly’s work with Kids-for-Kids has not prevented her from being an
active student with wide-ranging interests. In addition to being
in drama and the school newspaper, she is working on an independent
project on cultural attitudes in America, focusing on the Jewish and
Asian ethnic groups. As for future plans, she sees herself continuing
as executive director of Kids-for-Kids, even when she goes off to
college, and appointing an acting director to oversee day-to-day
Looking farther into the future, Carly says, "I’d love to be a
journalist. Through my career as a journalist I’ll be able to make
a difference in someone’s life."
Fueled by her vision of making a difference for disadvantaged kids,
Carly has also developed the pragmatic skills necessary to create
a successful organization. "I have learned publicity, advertising,
financial management, budgeting, organization, planning, party
and working with people," she says. "It has really helped
my leadership skills and my writing."
The practicality that tempers her idealism is also apparent in the
reasons she applied for the Seventeen Magazine/Cover Girl Volunteerism
Award: "A friend told me about it, and it looked easy. If I won,
I would get $10,000 for Kids-for-Kids and $10,000 for college."
Carly was one of six award winners. With her mother (the suggested
escort) Carly attended the Washington awards ceremony, which Carly
found to be "very woman empowering." She was particularly
impressed by the commonality and mutual inspiration among the
"What was neat about these girls was that, although we had such
different programs, we had all overcome the same obstacles. We were
young people trying to accomplish big things. It was inspiring to
hear their ideas and perceptions of what they did. We inspired each
other." An added benefit of the award was the consequent publicity
about Kids-for-Kids, which spurred its growth to seven chapters.
Carly believes that the experience with Kids-for-Kids has strengthened
her as a person. "It has changed my perception of myself and what
I can accomplish and what I’m good for. It is very empowering to know
that one hug can have so much effect on a kid," she says. "The
most important thing I’ve gotten is that it has changed my perception
of how lucky I am. I have a wonderful family, and I have a great life
that I’m enjoying, and I feel so lucky to have the opportunities and
the blessings I have that I’m sharing with these people. I’ve stopped
taking for granted what I used to take for granted."
— Michele Alperin
or E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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