By Allison Eatough
Nothing beats the acts of kindness right here in Maryland around the holidays.
A 7-year-old started collecting aluminum tabs to raise money for a nonprofit that helps his sick sister. An 8-year-old donated her birthday gifts to help kids in the hospital. A 13-year-old spends Christmas Eve handing out backpacks stuffed with clothes for the homeless. And teenage sisters spend every year helping needy families have Christmas.
These are the heart-warming stories that make the holidays special. There are many kids in Maryland giving of themselves to help those in need. Here is just a few of their stories.
Collecting pull tabs for the Ronald McDonald House
Every few months, piles of aluminum pull tabs take over the garage in Caleb Leach’s St. Leonard home.
The 7-year-old began collecting tabs from soda and soup cans two years ago to raise money for the Baltimore Ronald McDonald House – a second home for seriously ill children being treated at area hospitals and their families. Caleb’s family has stayed at the house off and on since 2010 while Abby receives treatment for an ongoing medical condition
“The first time we went to the Ronald McDonald House, we saw the office, and there were tons of soda tabs there,” Caleb says. “…We knew if we did that, we could save lives.”
So at age 5, Caleb began asking family members and his St. Leonard Elementary School classmates and teachers to save their tabs. The Ronald McDonald House takes the tabs to a local recycling center, where they are weighed and redeemed for cash. One million tabs equals about 730 pounds and about $511 for the house. In his first year, Caleb collected more than 700 pounds.
Since then, he has expanded his effort to six other Calvert County schools, including Huntingtown High School.
“We stopped weighing them because there are so many,” says Caleb’s mom, Julie Leach.
Every few months, the Leach family delivers tabs to the Ronald McDonald House, which uses money raised from recycling to fuel its hospital shuttle. The family plans to make another delivery this December.
Julie Leach says she’s extremely proud of her son for his efforts to help Abby and thousands of children like her who stay at Ronald McDonald House.
“He has such a heart for the house,” she says. “He does this because he loves his sister, and he loves the Ronald McDonald House.”
Caleb says it’s just the right thing to do.
“The Ronald McDonald House is important to me because it helps kids. … They help our family, and we help theirs.”
Donating gifts to children in the hospital
Gabi Demuren’s interest in Children’s National Medical Center in Washington D.C. began when her younger sister, Shiloh, was admitted for a minor illness in 2010.
The then 4-year-old was “intrigued by the care given not only to her sister but to her,” says Gabi’s mother, Peta Demuren of Bowie. Hospital nurses shared books and toys with Gabi to keep her engaged and happy as her sister received treatment, she says.
“It left a mark on her,” Demuren says. “An imprint on her heart.”
That imprint became evident just before Gabi’s sixth birthday on Feb. 14, 2012. She decided to donate all her gifts from her party to Children’s National Medical Center.
“I picked the hospital because it has lots of kids who are sick,” Gabi says. “I just wanted them to be happy like me.”
While delivering the gifts, she noticed several teenage patients who had little to keep them occupied, Demuren says. So the following year, Gabi expanded her efforts, asking family members and fellow classmates at The Key School in Annapolis to donate books. She ended up collecting more than 200 books.
Gabi also organized a special event at Chick-fil-A in Bowie, where a portion of the day’s sales helped fund additional books and electronics for her cause.
First Lady Michelle Obama recognized her efforts during a visit to the hospital in 2013. And, Gabi, who is now 8, has even created the “Gabi Demuren Initiative” to continue her work improving the lives of pediatric patients.
This December, Gabi plans to visit the patients again with gifts in hand.
“We encourage and support all her efforts and know our Valentine’s Day ‘love bug’ will do much (more) to spread love, care and joy around the world,” Demuren says.
Handing out backpacks to the homeless
Justin Gardner’s Christmas Eve tradition begins at an Annapolis park-and-ride lot.
There, the 13-year-old Millersville resident meets fellow School of the Incarnation classmates, friends and family members to begin their annual journey to two Baltimore homeless shelters.
For more than five years, Justin and his family have raised money to benefit Giving Back, Linda’s Legacy, an organization dedicated to helping the homeless in Anne Arundel County, Baltimore, Washington D.C. and across the Eastern Shore. The money raised pays for new sweatshirts, hats, gloves and socks, which Justin stuffs into backpacks and then delivers on Christmas Eve.
Once the caravan of about 45 volunteers arrives at the first shelter, Justin quickly gets to work, taking backpacks off the truck and carrying supplies inside. He and fellow students also sing Christmas carols and hand out stuffed animals and candy canes.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Justin says. “It’s so awesome to see their smiling faces… I’ve had a lot of good experiences there.”
A few years ago, Justin met a man who shared his love of the Baltimore Ravens. They talked about football and other everyday things, he says. Recently, Justin saw the man working atTarget in Glen Burnie and the man immediately recognized him.
“He said I inspired him,” Justin says.
That interaction has motivated Justin even more to help others around the holidays.
“I do this because after I saw that man working there, I thought I could inspire other people,” he explains.
Helping Walk the Walk
Sisters Annie and Mary Mitchell have grown up with the spirit of giving.
In 2004, their parents, David and Kim, founded the Walk the Walk Foundation to help communities and people in need throughout Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.
“My parents … wanted to teach us to always give back,” says Annie Mitchell, 18, of Millersville. “God has blessed us so much with everything we have … we see it as important to give back.”
At ages 6 and 9, Mary and Annie began helping with the foundation’s core project —Walk of Christmas. The foundation secures sponsors for families in need who then donate money or gift cards or buy holiday presents for the families.
One night each December, the girls join their parents at a church in West Virginia to organize the gifts. The next day, families arrive — sometimes with their children — to pick everything up.
“It’s nice to see when the parents come in and see what the kids are getting for Christmas,” says Mary, 15 and a freshman at Annapolis Area Christian School.
“The parents cry with joy,” Annie adds. “And it’s always a lot of fun to see the kids.”
Bicycles, which are often assembled in the Mitchell’s Millersville home, tend to get the biggest reaction from the children, she says.
“Each bike has a kid’s name on it,” Annie says. “As soon as they walk up and the kids see their name on the bike, it just makes me happy to see it.”
Hammond High School SGA packs meals to stop hunger
Instead of hosting its annual holiday party three years ago, students in Columbia’s Hammond High School Student Government Association pursued a more meaningful activity: Packing meals for Stop Hunger Now, an international hunger relief agency.
The change stuck and now each December students gather sponsors to help pay for 29-cent meals for the hungry. Then, between 80 and 100 of them gather in the school cafeteria to pack the meals, which are supplied by Stop Hunger Now.
Meals include everything from rice and vegetables to spices and a vitamin pack, says Tulsi Bhatt, a Laurel resident and junior at Hammond High School.
Bhatt began packing meals with the SGA last year.
“It is really important to me that I am involved because I enjoy making a difference and helping others,” she says. “Participating in (Stop Hunger Now) gave me an opportunity to do that, and I was able to have fun while impacting others.”
Most of the Stop Hunger Now meals go to schools, orphanages, child development programs and medical clinics around the world.
Last year, students packed about 10,000 meals.
“The kids love this event, and it is one of my favorite parts of the year,” says Alec Livieratos, social studies teacher and SGA advisor at Hammond High School.
To find out ways you can get your kids involved in act of kindness see our story Ways your family can give to the needy this Christmas in MD