I’ve been thinking about ways to increase my impact on the children I mentor as a volunteer at my local Boys and Girls Club. I was spending 10-20 hours every week with hundreds of children helping them with homework, playing sports, teaching chess, holding art and essay contests, and trying to inculcate character traits they will need to excel in their lives but I always believed I could do more.
Recently I decided to narrow my focus and select 12 boys to mentor more in-depth over an extended period of time. We would form a club, set some goals, achieve them, and then I would challenge them to share the lessons they learned with their peers.
When I selected the boys, I told them I picked them out of hundreds of children because I saw something very special in them. One of the children looked up at me and asked, “I’m special?” I told him, “You’re darn right you’re special. You’re very special.” He smiled ear to ear and stuck out his chest a bit. It served as an instant reminder of the power of praise and energized me to make the experience unforgettable for them.
The club is now formed. The boys are called “The Role Models.” The bonding the first few weeks far exceeded my expectations. I walked into the club yesterday and one of the boys approached me. He told me his mother had a stroke and his father had a growth under his arm and that they were both in the hospital. He was sad and clearly found comfort confiding in me. I was honored and realized I had earned his trust. I’m grateful for the opportunity to build relationships with the children so they feel comfortable sharing their feelings.
I’m planning on getting the boys t-shirts that read, “I’m a role model. Expect the best from me.” When I shared the idea with them, I didn’t know how they would react. They were ecstatic and started high-fiving each other. I laughed.
I recently hosted a vegan barbecue for everyone at the club, including staff. I’ve been working on trying to help them lead healthier lives which has included discussions about eating more plant-based foods, dental care, exercise, and giving back to the community. They raved about the food. None of them could believe it didn’t come from an animal. The discussions were priceless. One child said to me, “This food tastes so good! If it’s healthier and it doesn’t hurt animals, why doesn’t everyone eat it?”
Several of the kids told me they asked their parents to buy it for them and have been eating it at home. I provided them with Vegetarian Starter Kits and other information so they could begin exploring the joy of plant-based eating. I’m also bringing in my juicer and blender to make veg juices and fruit smoothies with them.
I recently hosted a vegan barbecue for the staff and maintenance crew where I live. The results were the same. Everyone enjoyed the food, asked a lot of questions, and began buying it to make at home. Their favorite was the new Whole Foods breaded chicklenless patties. Here are some of the foods I’ve been preparing for my V.I.P. (Vegans in Progress) friends, neighbors, co-workers, et al. as replacements for hamburgers, hot dogs, and chickens.
Here is a picture of some of the staff where I live enjoying it. It’s an easy and fun way to introduce people to a more compassionate way to eat that doesn’t involve such heart-breaking violence.
As you can see, the boys are a lot of fun. They love to laugh, play, and learn. You would be amazed at how many valuable lessons about teamwork, kindness, sportsmanship, leadership, and perseverance I’m able to share with them during a game of football or kickball. We’re having a blast!
I look forward to sharing our experiences in the months and years ahead. We’re taking a field trip to the local animal shelter this month to learn about kindness to animals and we’re planning a vegan food drive for the homeless. I hope you will check back often for updates. I also hope the story of these wonderful children may inspire you to volunteer at a Boys and Girls Club near you.
I brought my juicer to the club to make my favorite juice with the boys. They laughed hysterically as they fed each vegetable through the juicer and watched the waterfall of juice come from the carrots, apples, cucumber, and other veggies. Most importantly, they loved the juice! A few of them told me they’re going to ask their parents for a juicer but my favorite comment came after we were done drinking the juices and one of the kids asked me, “Now that we had something healthy, can we get some cookies?” Kids will always tell you what’s on their mind!”
1/25/13: Vegan Party Sponsored by The Fresh Market of Boca Raton
Special thanks to our friends at The Fresh Market of Boca Raton for agreeing to sponsor my vegan cooking classes at the Boys and Girls Club. I’m deeply grateful for their support. Thank you Dave!
I showed up at the club today with crates of fruits and vegetables. The kids swarmed me with smiles at the door! They pointed at the strawberries and screamed with joy! The staff helped me make fruit and vegetable salads for the kids. They enjoyed every bite and pleaded for more. I spoke to them about the benefits of plant-based foods versus meat, cheese, and other unhealthy choices.
Whenever I make them salads, smoothies, juices, and other fresh vegan food, it’s very clear that they aren’t use to eating it and definitely crave it. You would be inspired to see kids fighting over apples, oranges, bananas, and strawberries. It’s a powerful reminder that children like fresh fruits and vegetables if given the option.
I recently wrote a letter to the Boys and Girls Club corporate office asking them to remove the soda and candy vending machines from the club because they promote diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and bullying (overweight children are bullied disproportionately). I told them we have a moral obligation, consistent with the club’s mission, to promote healthy lifestyles for the children. I look forward to hearing back from them and celebrating the removal of the vending machines. At least for today, they were unplugged!
There were no Oreos, hot dogs, cheese doodles, or sodas today and all the kids were thrilled. They thanked me over and over and asked when I was bringing them more fruits and vegetables. I told them we’re making fruit smoothies Monday and they started dancing, high-fiving, and hugging each other! They get so excited! It was an inspiring and unforgettable day. I adore these kids. I wish everyone could know them. I believe in the potential for greatness that exists in all of them and I tell them that every day. Here are a few photos from the event.
Update 1/28/13: Smoothies!
When I told the kids I’m making fresh fruit smoothies for them, one of the boys replied, “I’m going to be thinking about it all day in school.” It takes very little to excite them. They’re asking me a lot of questions about vegan food and I’m gladly and gently answering them. I’m optimistic they will continue to eat more and more plant-based foods at home and in school as they learn the truth about animal agriculture in addition to the health and environmental benefits.
The smoothies were a big hit. They asked for and received several refills. Here are some pictures of them waiting with big smiles and wide eyes as I blended them. I also attached a few pictures from some of our recent athletic competitions. I cherish my time with them. We’re forming a very close bond. I’m taking them to an animal shelter next week so we’re all very much looking forward to that experience!
1/30/13 Update: The Baseball Game
I played baseball with the kids today. The boy you see here struck out three straight times. He never even made contact with the ball. He kept saying, “I can’t hit the ball. I’ll never hit it.”
His team was losing 2-1 with teammates on second and third base. After he swung and missed two times, I approached the plate and told him that if he keeps saying that he’ll never hit the ball, he’ll never hit it. He said, “I only have one strike left.” I told him, “No, you have one swing left. Now let me hear you say, ‘I’m going to hit the ball and win this game for my team.” I held the ball up and showed it to him and then released it from the mound.
He hit the ball in a gap and both runs scored. His teammates jumped up and down and celebrated. He looked at me and I looked at him and we both smiled. These are the moments that make my life so rewarding. After the game, I asked him to pose for a picture to recreate the scene.
2/1/13 Update: Relay Races, Soccer, Football, T-Shirts, and President Obama
We had a great day today! These games provide valuable opportunities to teach lessons in patience, kindness, leadership, and sportsmanship. The kids make me proud when they volunteer to set up the field, sit quietly and listen to orientations, sub out during a game, and pick each other up when they fall down or make a mistake. There are also plenty of teachable moments.
For the first time ever, all 15 of the boys in my “Role Models” club were present today which gave me an opportunity to take the photo you see of them on the bleachers. I’m going to get them each a t-shirt with their name, a number, “I’m a role model. Expect the best from me,” etc. on it so they can take pride in the club. Please let me know if you know anyone who might be willing to give me a discount on the shirts. Thank you.
Finally, I donated a litho of President Obama to the club which you can see hanging on their wall below. Since the club largely consists of African-Americans, I want them to be reminded that they have an African-American president every day they enter the club. I hope President Obama’s accomplishment reminds them that the sky is the limit for them in their lives.
2/6/13 Update: The Kickball Game
When we play football and other games, the boys don’t always display the best sportsmanship because they’re competitive and they want to win. They may disagree over who will substitute into a game, who kicks a ball, the order of a lineup, or any other issue that most kids argue about in a game. When someone drops a pass, they might say something unfriendly as opposed to saying, “nice try” or “you’ll catch the next one.” I’m constantly working on helping them to see the wisdom in kindness.
In order to help improve their sportsmanship, I decided to provide them an opportunity to coach and cheer in a positive way. Enter the girls. I selected 10 very excited girls to play a game of kickball today. I selected five girls for one team and five girls for the other team. The boys were not allowed to play. Their job was to coach and cheer. I told them if their team won, they would receive 1,000 points – a big incentive in our Color War competition. I explained to them that if they scream and get angry at the girls, they probably won’t be too motivated to win for them. And so the game began.
A few of the boys let their frustration get the best of them but most of them stayed focused through the ebb and flow of the game. I spent most of the game praising the boys who were clapping, coaching, and cheering the girls on and eventually the others followed their lead. I paused to soak it all in — my boys showing growth and of course, it was a thriller coming down to the last at bat.
2/13/13 Update: Peer-to-Peer Mentoring
I recently began a peer-mentoring program where I ask older members at the club to speak with my boys about issues that may interest them. This young man spoke to them about the importance of working hard in school and showing respect for classmates, teachers, and parents. I was so impressed with their interest, participation, and comments. They talked about the pressures of testing, provided examples of how to show kindness to others, and shared strategies to excel in different subjects. It was very uplifting to see their enthusiasm and eagerness to engage in discussions about topics that will impact their future.
2/16/13 Update: Promoting Dental Hygiene
In order to help the children understand the importance of dental hygiene to avoid a lifetime of pain and suffering in their mouth and wallets, I invited my friend who is a dentist (shown in the photos below) to speak with some of the kids and their parents about the importance of brushing, flossing, and general dental care. He showed videos, provided them tips and free handouts, including toothbrushes, floss, and toothpaste, and informed them about places to receive free or discounted dental care. They used stuffed animals with teeth to demonstrate healthy brushing habits. The kids laughed, participated, and asked and answered a lot of questions.
Since it took place on a Saturday, there were only 35 children present, however, my friend left all of the handouts and free giveaways for us to give to the hundreds of children who will return Monday. I hope the kids remember this event and it inspires them to take care of their teeth in the years ahead. Here are some photos from the presentation.
2/26/13 Updates: Team Shirts, Compassion for Animals, and the Book Club!
I’m excited to begin my first book club with the boys. I’ve chosen the children’s book Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I will probably make each team into a literature circle and divide up the roles (i.e. illustrator, actor, etc.). The book will teach them valuable lessons about the importance of showing kindness to their classmates and accepting everyone’s differences.
As I opened the box containing their team shirts, the boys eyes opened wide, they made all kinds of noises, and jumped up and down. As I presented each shirt, they cheered. The slogan reads: “I’m a role model. Expect the best from me.” It was as fun as fun gets. The photos tell the story. They are beaming with pride.
I told the boys about the Holley Fire Department’s Squirrel Slam which awarded guns as prizes to children for killing squirrels and compared it to the life saving work of the South Florida Wildlife Center (SFWC) which rescues thousands of abandoned, injured, and abused animals every year. I asked the boys to tell me if they would rather support the Squirrel Slam or the SFWC and they all chose the SFWC.
The boys expressed their feelings through a poster competition with images and slogans they created. They drew a fireman shooting water out of his hose at a boy shooting a squirrel and wrote, “Kill fires, not animals” among other powerful images and slogans.
We’re mailing the posters to the Holley Fire Department along with my favorite quote of the day from one of the boys: “I thought fire departments were supposed to do good things. Shouldn’t the government shut them down?”
3/1/13 Update: Presentation of Donation to the South Florida Wildlife Center (SFWC)
I have the honor of presenting a check to the SFWC tomorrow for approximately $5,000. The kids made a poster for me to present to them with the check tomorrow. Here are some photos of it.
Update: March 15, 2013
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Andrew Kirschner, Ed.D., is a grassroots vegan animal rights activist. He writes a zero-profit blog, Kirschner’s Korner, and hosts a radio show, Kirschner’s Korner Radio, to help raise awareness about issues affecting the global community to make the world a more humane place. To receive new articles via email, enter your email in the “Follow Blog Via Email” link at the top right of the blog.