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Community: Advanced degree in charity

A group of local teens proves that community service can be fun, fulfilling and high-impact

A little after 6 a.m. one October morning, half a dozen Green Valley High School sophomores and their moms stood shivering in a parking lot near West Washington Avenue and G Street. Julia Occhiogrosso, of the Las Vegas Catholic Worker, pulled up with a trailer full of coffee and tea, food and industrial kitchenware. Following Occhiogrosso’s directions, the sleepy-eyed kids helped set up a soup line and then manned serving stations. Homeless men and women wandered into the lot and lined up for the free food that the community charity doles out four days a week.

Charlie Newman, a tall baseball player with shaggy hair and hazel eyes, flipped pancakes and watched as people took washcloths to clean up before eating. Later, he’d tell his mother, Deborah Newman, that he was struck by their gratitude and good manners, and saddened to see how many military veterans were among the city’s homeless. Before heading home around noon that day in 2013, the Newmans and their friends served more than 150 people.

But the remarkable part of this story isn’t just the volume of need met – the Catholic Worker soup line routinely attracts as many as 200 – it’s the fact that the Green Valley group was neither putting in mandatory community service hours for school, nor volunteering for an official nonprofit organization. Yet, despite the casual nature of their efforts, they got together nearly every month for six years and lent a hand to someone who needed it. Called TeenMD, short for teens making a difference, the kids recently finished high school and will soon head off to college. But the impact of what they did will last for years to come.

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A history of giving

In 2007, during lunch with some female friends, Henderson resident Leslie DeVore floated an idea for an activity that she’d heard about a similar group of Orange County friends doing: What if, instead of spending $50 on lunch, they pooled their money once a month for a charitable cause? DeVore’s friends loved the idea, and their informal give group was born.

There were a few ground rules: They decided to avoid overtly political and religious activities, but otherwise could give the money to whomever they collectively decided on, from a neighbor who’d fallen on hard times to a formal 501(c)3. There would be no strings attached, and the low amount would keep them under the tax limit.

The give group has succeeded beyond what the friends expected when they started it nine years ago. This fall, they’ll hit the $50,000 mark in total donations.

“I think the reason it worked for me is because it was so easy and a good way to give,” says Deborah Newman. “Then after a few years I realized, you know what? I want that for my kids. … I can see the way our society moves. Sometimes people are not so charitable, and I think it’s important.”

In 2010, a few of the women in the give group had kids who were seventh-graders. A mix of boys and girls, they’d grown up together and were good friends. Their moms wanted to encourage them to do something like the give group, but recognized that the teens would have to offer something other than money, since they had little of their own. How about their time?

The moms got everyone together for a pizza party and – like DeVore had done with them three years earlier – proposed the idea of a volunteer project. The girls were receptive and the boys didn’t object, which, at their age, was tantamount to approval, their mothers say. After a meeting or two more, they had full buy-in from the kids, a mission statement and a name: Teens Making a Difference, TeenMD.

“There were 12 of us, so the idea was, each of us would take a month,” says Cyndy Mahoney, who fills the role of unofficial den mother. “So, you and your child would decide, ‘OK, we’re going to do Three Square,’ and then (that family) would take care of setting it up and letting everyone else know when and where we’re going.”

How each parent-child team operated was up to them. In some cases, Mom took charge; in others, Junior was more involved. In general, they gravitated toward causes that resonated with the kids. A sporty boy named Noah Whitehead usually picked the Tour de Fire, a long-distance bike ride that benefitted the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation. A pet lover, Haley Kaminsky tended to choose animal rescues and shelters, such as Heaven Can Wait. One mom, Janet Wellish, kept a folder of ideas for anyone who was short on inspiration.

“One thing we took from our give group was to have the kids learn about the different needs and opportunities within our local community,” Mahoney says. “When you’re at Three Square, they give you a tour and talk about the food bank and where the food goes, so it kind of opens your eyes.”

Once those eyes are open, they tend to stay open, according to Bob Morgan, president and CEO of United Way of Southern Nevada. “This is a great way to ingrain in the next generation the core value of giving back,” he says. “It’s a great way to make that world view stick with the next generation. … It stays with them forever.”

Give and give again

Pausing to reflect on all the places she went with TeenMD, Eve Wellish, Janet’s daughter, lowers her dark brown eyes and leans forward on one elbow.

“Toys for Smiles is one that stands out,” she finally says. “They make toy cars out of wood, and they had us come in and oil the cars and make sure they didn’t have any splinters or anything that could hurt the kids they were going to give them to. I remember it being kind of lighthearted. We were playing with the cars, and the boys were being very silly. I think we were sophomores in high school then, but we became like little kids again.”

After they finished polishing what seemed like hundreds of little cars to Wellish, Toys for Smiles founder Rex Doty gave each teen two cars to take home. He told them to keep an eye out for kids who needed toys and give them the cars.

“That really made a huge impact,” Wellish says. “So often, we’d go to a place and do a job and that would be it. But there, we took something with us. It taught me a lesson: Your service projects should never end. … Physically, we might have been done with it, but mentally, we were thinking about the happiness and well-being of children.”

Over the years, Wellish and her friends volunteered for dozens of organizations: Boys and Girls Club of Henderson, Catholic Charities, Goodie Two Shoes, Ronald McDonald House, Tonopah Community Garden – the list is long.

What kept them going, when so many kids’ parents have trouble getting them off the couch and away from their video screens?

“We loved being there so much that showing up was never really a problem,” Wellish says. “It was never a ‘Shame on you!’ thing. It was more, ‘Oh, we missed you.’ We just happened to be friends with this nice, down-to-Earth group of people. It’s definitely rare. I’m lucky to have them.”

She alludes to two factors that seem to be at the heart of TeenMD’s longevity: good group chemistry and a low-pressure attitude toward participation. Although the parents say they expected their kids to commit long-term, they also made it clear from the beginning that conflicting activities, from soccer to church, would take precedent. With guilt-trips out of the equation, the kids went to events, many of which they’d picked themselves, on their own terms.

“In 2014, we did the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation Toy Run,” Mahoney says, recalling a favorite activity of her son Zach Mahoney, who’s usually pretty stoic. “Some people who airbrush cars for a reality TV show came out and airbrushed stockings with kids’ names and pictures in the parking lot at Sunrise Hospital. Zach and a few of the kids took names and passed out stockings. Afterward, he was just like, ‘That was so awesome!’ He had a Santa Claus hat and a big grin on.”

TeenMD became so much fun that, by the time kids were in high school, driving and carrying their own cell phones, they would get together and do things with no parental involvement at all.

While Mahoney set up a Shutterfly Share site for photos, the kids used GroupMe to communicate the details of outings. The closer the kids got to graduation, with social lives and SATs to worry about, the fewer of them would show up each month. But their enthusiasm didn’t wane, even if only two or three of them could make it.

Based partly on her description of the experience in an essay, Wellish received a $1,000 Powerful Partnership college scholarship from NV Energy. She’s planning to go to George Washington University and double major in business and Spanish. She says she’ll do some kind of community service in college and is hoping that her degree will help her run her own nonprofit someday.

“It’s easier to say than do, but it’s good to keep in mind the concept behind service,” she says. “If you’re going to feed the homeless, for instance, you can do that every day and night, but they’re going to still come back for more, so I guess what I was left with was, there’s a bigger problem. It’s the system that’s making them homeless. So, I think about that problem. What needs to be done to help them so they can find a job and sustain themselves? With each project, you look a little deeper and see what needs to be changed in our world.”

Future give

With Wellish and her peers graduating, what will become of TeenMD? Another generation is taking the baton. Leading the effort are the mother and younger brother of one senior member, Kelsea Au.

“We thought we’d keep it going with these guys,” Jennifer Au says, looking at her son Conner, who’s now a freshman at Green Valley. “This group actually went to the same elementary school as the older group, so they’re really following in their older brothers’ and sisters’ footsteps.”

“It feels like I’ve done something good,” Conner says, describing why he took his mom up on the offer to start TeenMD 2.0 three years ago. “It makes you feel better about yourself to help others.”

He had some experience to build on, having participated in activities with his older sister’s group.

Jennifer says she also has a friend in Summerlin who’s interested in starting a similar group there. Her advice for this friend and anyone else who’s thinking about launching a TeenMD-like initiative: “If you can get at least six or seven kids to commit, it will work. Take the summer off, and during the year, have each kid take one month. … There are many organizations that need help, but even if you know an elderly couple who needs their lawn mowed and trees trimmed, that will work. Encourage kids to come up with their own ideas of how they can help.”

United Way’s Bob Morgan says that he finds his son’s generation is more philanthropically inclined than his own and has the benefit of operating in the information age.

“With the Internet and social media, there are so many ways of communicating now,” he says. “People are able to find causes that resonate with them at a level that maybe wouldn’t have been possible for us.”

Good for them, he adds: “I don’t have exact data, but there is a pretty robust set of data showing that there is a correlation between volunteering as an adult and self-identified contentedness.”

In other words, the kids of TeenMD not only had fun trying to make the world a better place, but in doing so, they also prepared themselves to be happy grownups. And heaven knows, the world can always use more of those.

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