Corrections or additions?

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

vision

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

organization,

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,

impoverished,

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

Magazine/Cover

Girl volunteerism award.

But Carly did not begin her community service journey with an

organization

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

homeless,"

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

important."

Carly’s concerns did not remain theoretical, and early

on she entertained ways to put her service ideas into practice.

"When

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

mentioned

that kids in shelters either did not have underwear or wore underwear

in great disrepair. "I was shocked at this," says Carly.

"Underwear

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

College

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

switching

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

organize

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’

wildest

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

"Walk-for-Chalk"

and has raised money for brand new backpacks filled with school

binders

and school supplies. (This organization is not related to one with

a similar name, the Kids for Kids Project, a Manhattan-based

theatrical

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

kid,"

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

expect

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

motivating

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

catalyst

was a conversation with a nursery director, who described

three-year-olds

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

paper,"

she says. "Although art supplies may seem trite, Art-for-All

provides

things that kids want that they couldn’t otherwise have." She

maintains that it is not just the necessities of life that are

important:

"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

lives."

As Carly matured, she realized that the obligation to serve went

beyond

simply collecting money; it also required "acts of loving

kindness."

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

disadvantaged

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

relationships

with kids in two Mercer county programs, the Ewing-based Children’s

Day School of the Family Guidance Center in Princeton and Anchor House

in Trenton.

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

personal

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

structured

as an umbrella group with chapters at different high schools. Today

there are six chapters in central and northern Jersey and one in

Massachusetts.

Each chapter agrees to participate in the triumvirate of projects

central to the Kids-for-Kids mission: the winter holiday and

Art-for-All

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

Kids-for-Kids

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.

"Everybody’s

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

Carly:

"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

a difference.

Although many high school students join Kids-for-Kids out of a feeling

of altruism and obligation, some join simply to fulfill the 50

community

service hours required for Princeton sophomores. Students often sign

up for the organization that provides the quickest and easiest

fulfillment

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

something

to write on a transcript. "Kids-for-Kids is so much more

meaningful

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

involved

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

operations.

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

planning,

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

participants.

"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

Kids-for-Kids , Box 1147, Princeton 08540,

www.eclipse.net/~kids4kids

or E-mail: kids4kids@eclipse.net


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