Cultivating Compassion

Sean Duffy • Elexa Wilson • Zach Russell • Hayley Duffy • Max Wattenmaker – Sean Duffy by Xandy Duffy; All others by Kathleen Digiovanna

A growing number of teens aren’t waiting for their first paycheck to be part of the change made possible through philanthropy. Instead, they’re donating their time to enlisting school administrators, organizing fundraisers, recruiting classmates and raising serious money for the causes in which they believe.

“Having passion for a club and working hard on it during high school teaches so much and builds character while helping people in need,” says Greenwich High School senior Sean Duffy, a member of the Breast Cancer Alliance’s (BCA) Junior Committee. “My volunteering efforts make me feel great, because I know that I am doing more than just helping myself.”

While most parents aspire for their children to develop loving relationships and rewarding careers, they also want them to become caring adults with deeply held philanthropic values. Rather than wait until their kids are grown, parents are instilling a spirit of generosity at an early age, teaching their offspring to share their good fortune.

“I want my children to see their parents helping other people and giving back to the community,” says Greenwich resident and mother of two, Lauren Schweibold. “The truth is that every single person—no matter how fortunate—struggles. How do we show our children what reality is like if they grow up in somewhat of a bubble?”

Having been raised in a tradition of stewardship by their own parents, the Schweibolds decided to extend this legacy to their children and lead by example. Lauren began volunteering at BCA, believing her children would see where she devoted much of her time and connect the dots as they matured. “It’s the little data points that you give them; and as they grow up, the more ingrained it becomes in their daily lives and the more they’ll feel responsible to give back,” she says.

A growing trend, youth philanthropy benefits kids, organizations, the community and society as a whole. Teenagers, in particular, excel when contributing their time and talents. Serving others allows youth to take ownership of something important, which boosts their self-esteem and teaches them life skills, leadership, responsibility and commitment. Perhaps most important, volunteering cultivates compassion and empathy, showing kids that life can be challenging and fragile. In turn, teens bring fresh perspectives, enthusiasm and energy to the organizations they support—and may even develop future donors by introducing their peers to the cause.

Charlie and Lauren Schweibold – Photograph by Elaine Ubina/Fairfield County Look

Teaching kids to make decisions that help their communities thrive takes on new importance when you consider that baby boomers will pass along their assets over the next twenty years in what will be the largest intergenerational wealth transfer in history—an estimated $30 trillion in inheritance.

Students from area high schools are getting a jump on their philanthropic endeavors with BCA’s Junior Committee. Established in 2005, the program brings together youth from public and private high schools in Fairfield and Westchester counties to raise awareness and funding. Club members plan and orchestrate fundraisers at each school, and then enlist fellow students to join or volunteer at events.

“One of the nice things about our teen program is that, instead of being something that’s driven by a particular school, the whole community comes together,” says BCA President Meg Russell. Teens collaborate with students from other schools who they normally wouldn’t know, sharing diverse perspectives and learning from one another about what’s working in different schools and communities.

While the Junior Committee teaches students vital skills, such as collaboration, problem-solving and teamwork, Meg feels the program confers an even greater benefit. “Isn’t it fascinating that there could be someone working in a lab across the country who’s coming up with research so novel, so early-stage that no one wants to fund it?” she says. “BCA sees the value in that research—and we’re funding it,” a lesson she believes inspires teens. “I think that shows kids what they could be doing with their lives, that the world is open to out-of-the-box thinkers and entrepreneurs.”

“It’s great to be a part of an organization that is funding incredible, groundbreaking research in the breast cancer field,” says Meg’s son Zach Russell, former copresident of the BCA Junior Committee at Brunswick and now a freshman at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. “One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, but it will affect her father, husband and sons. And men can also get breast cancer. It’s just not as prevalent.”

“Volunteering lays the groundwork for a lifetime of giving back and helping others. It’s really the cornerstone of kids’ social consciousness,” says BCA board member and Junior Committee Cochair, Xandy Duffy, whose daughter, Hayley, participated in the program throughout high school. “Hayley is now a sophomore at Boston College and already volunteering downtown at a soup kitchen.”

BCA Vice President Elisa Wilson; BCA President Meg Russell; BCA board member and Junior Committee Cochair Xandy Duffy – Photograph by Kathleen Digiovanna

Max Wattenmaker also arrived at college with more than a thirst for knowledge, matriculating at Tulane University as a biomedical engineering major with a desire to give back. Now a junior, the former BCA Junior Committee member has helped build playgrounds and cleaned up areas in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward as part of an initiative to build a park. “Also, I helped to restore the shoreline of the Gulf Coast and participated in a program called Outreach Tulane where we go into the city in less-fortunate areas and paint some houses and help restore gardens to try and attract more people to the area,” Max says.

These stories are tremendously rewarding to the BCA’s leadership. “That’s the way the Junior Committee is structured,” says Meg Russell, referring to the program’s focus on integrating a charitable mindset into students’ social consciousness. “Our hope is that it will continue to propel them toward an active level of philanthropy and giving back” beyond their high school years.

The year culminates with the Junior Com- mittee fashion show. “Richards donates its space and the fashions,” BCA Vice President Elisa Wilson says. “The kids promote the event, invite guests to attend by purchasing a ticket, solicit items for the silent auction and walk the runway as models. Ticket sales and the silent auction bring in money, but it’s difficult to place a value on the trickle-down effect from introducing new people to the Breast Cancer Alliance.”

“It’s amazing how many people come out to support the fashion show,” says Hannah Beldotti, a sophomore at Michigan State University who participated in BCA’s Junior Committee while attending Bronxville High School. “My grandmother and aunt were both diagnosed with breast cancer, and then my mom was diagnosed a couple of years ago. The BCA helped her get through, which was really important to me. So, I joined their Junior Committee.” Hannah held her first fundraiser at Connecticut Stonington Harbor Yacht Club. “I ended up raising $1,000. It was incredibly rewarding.”

On average, BCA’s Junior Committee raises between $20,000 and $25,000 annually for the organization—no small thing given the demands and distractions clamoring for students’ time and attention. “It’s so wonderful that what they do helps contribute to this larger goal,” says Meg. “I think the kids really feel like they’re making a difference, and they absolutely are.” In an era of vulnerability and uncertainty, these and other young philanthropists are a true testament to the magnitude of the human capacity for charity and compassion.


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