Eleven years ago, Bryson Earle looked out of his car window and saw a man lying on a park bench in the middle of downtown Columbia. It was December, cold and gray, and Bryson knew that this sorrowful soul — underdressed, alone, possibly hungry, and certainly with no place to go — must be freezing. Rather than look away and go on with his day, Bryson felt he had to help. Finding a safe, warm place for the man to stay was Bryson’s first concern; then he would need to supply him with food and possibly even provide a long-term solution. But he also realized that he could not do it alone. He needed to enlist support.
Bryson was only 6 years old.
Bryson, now 17, recalls, “I asked my mom if we could bring him home and maybe he could sleep in our guest bedroom.”
While Bryson was not permitted to take the man home and install him in the downstairs bedroom, Bryson’s mother, Sharon Earle, seized upon the opportunity to explain the concept of homelessness. She and Bryson found a warm blanket for the man on the bench and returned together to give it to him.
But Bryson wasn’t satisfied. Having learned about the epidemic of homelessness, he now understood others on the streets of Columbia were living and sleeping outside without protection from the bitter winter weather. Bryson discussed his concerns with older brothers, Ivan, II, and Andrew, then 15 and 11 respectively. Together they came up with the idea of using the family’s annual Christmas party to collect coats and blankets that they could then distribute on Christmas morning at Finlay Park, an area where the homeless feel safe in Columbia.
“That’s how it all started,” says Sharon. “Some of our friends called and said, ‘Oh, wow, you’ve got to be kidding!’ When people come over to your Christmas party, they usually bring a bottle of wine or Champagne. But we said, ‘Can you just bring new or gently used coats or blankets for our Share The Warmth of CHRISTmas project?’”
What started out as 35 blankets delivered to the park has since mushroomed into two full-sized trucks filled with coats and blankets to help those less fortunate get through winter months. Food baskets have been added to the donations because, during their first philanthropic trip to Finlay Park, Andrew noticed that many of those in need were asking for something to eat. Now, each Christmas morning, before a stocking is emptied, a present is opened, a slice of cake is cut, or a strand of tinsel is disturbed, the entire Earle family, which includes Sharon; her husband, Ivan; their three boys; and their daughter, Arrington, age 11, make the trip out to the park and do what they can to bring a bit of holiday cheer and comfort into the lives of Columbia’s underprivileged.
What does it take to foster that sort of empathy, kindness, and compassion in children?
Sara Fawcett, president and CEO of the United Way of the Midlands, believes that this type of philanthropy is a learned skill that must be taught. It begins with creating a culture of understanding and grace at home and teaching children to support one another.
“If your little brother is late getting ready for school and you’re ready to go, how about making his bed for him,” says Sara. “It starts with how you treat each other at home, and then taking that spirit of generosity and grace and understanding out past your home.”
The next step is to demonstrate an everyday tradition of benevolence and giving. Children must be shown what generosity looks like and then be provided with real opportunities to help others.
“Children are going to do what they see you doing,” says Sara. “You can tell them that they need to give and you can tell them that they need to volunteer, but they are going to do what they see you do. So model it.”
Modeled examples of public spirit and graciousness have always been prevalent in the Earle household. Long before Bryson knew what the word homelessness meant, the family was actively involved in trying to improve the lives of those less fortunate. Meaningful participation in local charities was expected; old toys and clothes were collected and donated; and Angel Families — for whom new clothes and toys were bought using money that had previously been spent on gifts from aunts, uncles, and grandparents — were adopted during the holidays.
That passion for societal outreach actually started several generations before.
“I grew up knowing and thinking that it was just a natural thing,” says Sharon. “My great-grandmother had a store in the small town where she lived, and I just remember that she probably gave away as much as she sold.” Sharon currently serves on the board for the Central Carolina Community Foundation.
The same was true in Ivan’s home. If anyone in his neighborhood was in trouble or had a problem, everyone knew that Ivan’s mother was there to help. “Even now, she cooks these elaborate Sunday dinners,” says Sharon, “and everyone knows they are all welcome to just come over and eat.”
The simple act of emptying one’s pocket at the end of the day can help demonstrate an everyday commitment to kindness and community service. The Earle family collectively decided to start a “pocket emptying” routine every night during the year to collect money to purchase food for the outing. Arrington, the youngest, modeled this positive behavior with the request she made for her 11th birthday party. In lieu of gifts, she asked her friends to bring gift cards or money to be donated to her favorite charity, Innersole, to help buy shoes for children in need. Her friends’ immediate reaction was one of disbelief.
“A lot of my friends were really shocked at first,” says Arrington. “They said things like, ‘You’re actually going to give up presents?’ But I explained to them that we all get things we don’t really need. I don’t need half of those presents.”
And kindness, it seems, is contagious. After Arrington’s party, a friend followed suit and renounced gifts at her birthday party in order to collect money for another charity.
If children aren’t ready to cook up an entire enterprise designed to combat the problem of homelessness or give up their birthday presents, they can still get involved in existing volunteer projects. For example, the United Way of the Midlands’ website, uway.org, allows users to enter the age of the volunteer and pull up corresponding opportunities. These range from decorating placemats for Meals on Wheels and picking up litter at a children’s shelter to preparing sealable bags for the homeless that include toothbrushes, toothpaste, socks, and soap and helping to distribute them.
The Livingstons are another Columbia family with a long legacy of giving to the community. Barbara Livingston is the wife of U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, Jr, the adjutant general of South Carolina. She and Bob have four adult children who grew up knowing that the extension of help to those in need was an expected part of their everyday lives. Their children’s early first memories are of working hard on projects with their church, donating food, singing to shut-ins, going on mission trips, and working with Habitat for Humanity.
“When giving back to the community, we never said, ‘This is what you need to do;’ we just said, ‘This is what we do,’” says Barbara.
Like the Earle family, these lessons were learned from previous generations of humanitarians. Having both been raised by parents who grew up in the Depression, Barbara and Bob spent their formative years hearing stories about neighbors helping neighbors at a time when just getting a meal on the table seemed impossible.
“If you had a talent, food, or money to share, you would give it to others, and when they had a talent, food, or money to share, they did the same,” says Barbara. “Later in life, our parents were involved in community support groups and foundations that reached out to people in their community.”
Natural disasters can also spur the open-hearted into action. While South Carolina struggled with the effects of Hurricane Florence, Barbara and her family tried to provide as much assistance as they could. With assistance from their church and the United Service Organizations, they supported the S.C. National Guard by gathering water, coffee, snacks, and personal hygiene items. Barbara, as a board member of the USO in South Carolina, personally delivered items to the troops in Conway.
“There’s nothing like the smile of a soldier when you give him a bag of Oreo cookies,” says Barbara.
The Livingston family understands all too well the struggles of members of the military and their families. When Bob was deployed to Afghanistan, their lives were completely upended, and feelings of fear and isolation were sometimes overwhelming. But they turned that pain into action by reaching out to other military families, counseling children at a military youth camp, and getting involved with the USO.
“A military family realizes that we are so blessed as a state and a nation due to the freedoms that our military fights for every day,” says Barbara. “And with those freedoms come great responsibility to make sure that we can pass our blessings along to others.”
Rachel Popkowski, who is Barbara’s second child and mother to a 5-year-old boy and twin 3-year-old girls, also believes it is never too early to start teaching children the importance of giving back. Even something as simple as a summertime lemonade stand can be the catalyst to creating caring, socially minded children. Together with a few neighboring children, Rachel’s kids set up their beverage business with the understanding that a percentage of their sales would be donated to a non-profit organization or a church of their choosing.
“The process of counting their earnings, setting aside 10 percent, selecting a deserving organization, and actually giving that money is a simple process when you are working with $35,” explains Rachel. “But it still demonstrates to children how they can help others and their community even at a young age.” Rachel serves as a committee member for the United Way.
JoAnn Turnquist, president and CEO of the Central Carolina Community Foundation, hopes to foster these ideals in the community. She is also a certified 21/64 Trainer, an independent nonprofit providing multigenerational advising and training. A few years ago, she and her staff visited a local day camp and gave the children three jars to decorate, including one for saving, one for spending, and one for giving. They also asked four nonprofit volunteers to give child-appropriate presentations about their respective organizations.
“As the children made their jars, we told them the story of the two seas,” says JoAnn, “the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea — both filled by the Jordan River. The Sea of Galilee feeds into pasture land. It gives its water away and animals and people thrive and crops grow. This sea lives, gives, and flourishes. The Dead Sea hoards its water and turns saline, which kills the fish and plants and makes people sick if they drink it. The sea keeps everything, shares nothing, and is dead.”
When the story and presentations were completed, each child was given four quarters to distribute between any of their three jars or they could choose to give to one of the visiting charities. Simple exposure to the concept of philanthropy led most of these young children to either put their quarters in their giving jars or give them to the nonprofit organizations.
JoAnn believes a good first step is learning to express gratitude.
“Like any habit, gratitude can be cultivated,” says JoAnn. “Ask family members to share three things they are grateful for during family meals or special gatherings.”
Over time this practice will help children develop “gratitude glasses” as they learn to appreciate the gifts in their own lives and recognize that others in the community may not be as fortunate. JoAnn also stresses the need to learn about the greater world as a way of building empathy. Adopt a family programs, food drives, and any form of pay it forward — such as donating gifts given at birthdays or holidays — can foster a sense of consideration, community spirit, and sympathy. Even a weekly family movie night, where encouraged conversations center around whatever acts of kindness are portrayed in the film, can start planting the seed of selflessness in young children.
“In order to become philanthropists,” says JoAnn, “children must be taught to be aware of others’ needs and their own unique abilities to give and share.”
Technology can also be an excellent tool in guiding children toward charitable giving. Midland Gives, an online community donation project, raises money and awareness for local nonprofits in 11 Midland counties. Although it is held just one day of the year with the next one scheduled for May 7, 2019, children and their parents can get on the website now, accessed through YourFoundation.org, and start selecting the nonprofit associations to which they would like to contribute. Encouraging active participation in charitable organizations promotes feelings of grace and goodness in children, who are then more likely to grow into kind, giving, and compassionate adults.
Both the Earle and Livingston families have created a beautiful blueprint for raising philanthropic-minded children. The three youngest Earle children continue their commitment to their annual Christmas program in Finlay Park. They express concern over the growing number of needy they see each year and, more disturbingly, the increased number of children who now accompany their poverty-stricken parents.
“It makes me wonder,” says Arrington. “I saw a lot of little girls out there with their moms. They get jackets, and they don’t even care if it’s a man-sized jacket … they just want a jacket. And I know that could be me out there. That could be me.”
“Not everyone grows up in the home that we did,” says Andrew, “but I do believe that everybody does have the opportunity to give back. If everyone gave back even just a little bit, so many problems would get solved.”
Bryson agrees, adding, “I just know we have a lot more giving to do.”