Service with a Smile

Philanthropy often fuels the entrepreneurial spirit in teens
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the October 2002 issue of Teen Startups. Subscribe »

( -- Anyone who witnessed the outpouring of kindness and support heaped on New Yorkers after September 11 can tell you that tragedy often brings out the best in people. Tara Lawrence, 20, of New Jersey, is no exception to this rule, and it was a loss in her family that sparked an international campaign.

"In 1992, I lost my grandfather to prostate cancer. I was very close to my 'Pa' and missed him very much," Lawrence says. "I felt that something good needed to come from something so sad, so I began volunteering with the American Cancer Society.

"I met and talked with children who were battling cancer or who were cancer survivors," she continues. "One common statement was repeated during each conversation: The children did not like losing their hair due to their cancer treatments."

Hats On
Those conversations in 1996, when Lawrence was only 14, gave her a great idea. Why not collect and distribute hats so kids with cancer would be less self-conscious about the way they looked?

"It started out as a letter-writing campaign," she explains. "I set my goal at 1,000 hats, but I wasn't sure if it would take off. Then I started getting them in the mail. One company actually sent me 1,000 hats!"

Lawrence may not have been sure about her idea, but everyone she talked to was. Her family's garage and basement were soon filled to capacity, and, as word spread, companies like Pantene and celebrities like Rosie O'Donnell, Sarah Jessica Parker and *N Sync came on board to help.

So far, Lawrence, who is now international director of Hats Off, has collected almost 100,000 hats, which are distributed around the world to organizations like the Make a Wish Foundation. And while she's gained international recognition and met celebrities, Lawrence still loves the kids most. "They're what's most important," she says. "I remember speaking at a cancer camp once, and telling them that the most important thing is that people care. 'Someone else cares enough about you to send these hats. I'm just a messenger to let you know that.' "

Packaged with Care
David Adamiec, 18, of Westbrook, Connecticut, is also a messenger of hope to the children in his area. Founder of Kidpacks of America Inc., Adamiec's nonprofit collects and distributes backpacks full of necessities----from clothing to food and school supplies--to kids who need them.

It all started when Adamiec was 11 and volunteered at his church to collect gear for children going into foster homes. He was shocked to find that children taken from their parents aren't allowed to bring anything with them except the clothes on their backs. Once the project was finished, he found he didn't want to stop, so he began a grassroots campaign asking individuals and store owners for donations and discounts.

Today, Kidpacks assembles three different kinds of packs: Kidpacks, containing five days' worth of clothes, toiletries, books, toys, blankets and, when appropriate, diapers and formula for kids in state custody awaiting placement in foster homes; School Packs, containing pencils, pens, notebooks, paper, calculators and other school supplies for kids whose families can't afford them; and Activity Packs, containing snacks, toys, stickers, crayons, paper and other supplies that social workers take with them when visiting troubled homes to keep children busy.

What started as a small, local project has taken on a life of its own, thanks in large part to Hearts of America, a foundation headquartered in Adamiec's First Congregational Church. Together, Adamiec and the group have sponsored trips to Washington, DC, among other places, where they put together 600 packs for kids in that area. "We created a huge assembly line," he explains. "It worked out perfectly."

This award-winning philanthropist has garnered international attention, and businesses across the country like Staples have donated gear. "It snowballed," Adamiec says. "It turned into a huge project."

Adamiec still puts most of the packs together himself, but is working toward making Kidpacks of America true to its name--a cross-country campaign--by talking to school and church groups.

Pint-sized Philanthropist
Like Adamiec, Devon Green, 11, of Martin County, Florida, is a master networker. Founder of Devon's "Heal the World" Recycling, she not only uses a portion of the profits from her business to support her local humane society and other groups but also raises funds for them in other ways. Included is her novel idea of donating her birthday--presents and all--to a specific group.

For her 10th birthday, Green asked family and friends to donate the money they would have spent buying her a present to The Humane Society of the Treasure Coast so they could build a new shelter. In addition, she spent the weeks leading up to her birthday raising money herself.

"I went door to door every day after school for one and a half months, telling people what I was doing, how much I was trying to raise, and how much I had already raised," Green says. "Then I would ask for a donation." In those weeks she raised $3,700 and convinced local pet shop owners to donate 2,000 pounds of food to the shelter.

Green's efforts didn't stop there, though. For her 11th birthday, she decided to raise $8,000 for the Hibiscus Children's Center, a nonprofit organization that helps families in crisis. During her campaign, she learned the center was losing its government funding and needed another $190,000 to continue running its nursery for another year. So when she presented them with an $8,000 check, she also announced her "Heal the Family" campaign to raise the extra money. This time, she's making speeches to organizations and issuing challenges to help.

What's Green's motivation? "I try and help as many families as I can," she simply says. And that includes her own. Green recently brought her 4-year-old sister Jessica into the business.

Getting Started
According to Lawrence, Adamiec and Green, the key to getting started is simple: Think globally, but act locally. Like the savviest of entrepreneurs, these philanthropists found their calling in their own backyards and urge others just to look around them. Volunteer at local churches or charities, or even just read the local newspaper--they guarantee you'll find a need. "There are so many projects you can do," Adamiec says.

Need more advice? It's never too early to make a difference. After all, Lawrence was 14, Adamiec was 11, and Green was the ripe old age of 6 when inspiration struck. You can bet the families who have felt the impact of their efforts are thankful they didn't wait.

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