When kids and teens have a desire to make a difference, service becomes contagious. 17-year-old Alex and 15-year-old Allison Wu build lasting connections to their Lexington, Massachusetts, community. For more than eight years, the brother and sister team has used creativity to raise funds for those in need.
After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan affected the lives of thousands of people, Allison, six years old at the time, turned her origami-making hobby into a symbol of hope and healing. Hundreds of cranes were constructed, donated and company donation matched. From there, Alex and Allison began doing good as a duo. From selling origami at local farmers markets to improving the lives of people experiencing homeless with Housing Families Inc., they consistently find ways to help their community through creativity.
What inspires both of you to volunteer?
Allison first learned how to make origami cranes at her school, where the students made cranes to help Japan recover after a Tsunami. One company donated one dollar for every crane made. At home, Allison made one hundred cranes, realizing that a fun and simple paper craft could help so many people in need.
We are inspired to volunteer because of our family values and helping others. We looked for an organization that would let children help children. Housing Families Inc., an organization that provides shelter and services for homeless families, invited us to events and gave us the privilege of working with some of the children. Our first experience was making origami cards with the children at their holiday party. We loved every moment spent with the kids – from meeting the boy who declined supplies because he wanted to make sure there were enough supplies for others, to the girl who was enchanted by the concept of double-sided tape. Getting to know the families motivated us to begin volunteering and do more.
How did you become passionate about helping people experiencing homelessness?
Because we started Origami4Kids as children, it was particularly important to us to help children, specifically those in families facing homelessness. The more we got to know children served by Housing Families, the more passionate we became about trying to make a difference. At a breakfast event, we sat next to a nurse who became homeless after the birth of her daughter with a severe chronic medical condition. She couldn’t keep her job because her daughter was frequently sent home from school and had multiple medical appointments. If a nurse could become homeless, anyone could.
Alex: For the past three years, I have tutored children experiencing homelessness in an after school program and served as a counselor in the summer camp. I appreciate that the children feel safe in the Housing Families after school program and can play in a nurturing and understanding environment. From the joy of Maddie, an 8-year-old who sang Frozen songs during breaks with me to the heartache of Jimmy, the fourth grader who was upset that he missed basketball tryouts because his mom was unable to drive him, I feel privileged to be in these kids’ lives. My experiences with the kids made me passionate to do more.
Allison: I have loved working with the children who receive support form Housing Families at the annual holiday party and in the summer camp. At the most recent holiday party, I took photos of the children with Santa Clause and printed them out. Seeing the joy on the faces of the parents and children when I gave them their printed photos gave me tremendous satisfaction as I learned that many of the families did not have any framed photos. These experiences have motivated me to want to do more. Now that I am in high school, I am looking forward to being a tutor in the Housing Families after school program.
Describe your volunteer role with origami4kids, the Holiday Boutique and other activities you are a part of.
Leading up to December, we spent days organizing donations from drives at our school and community, as well as items purchased with the money we make from selling origami cards. We add price tags to every toy or decoration and put them in bins to bring to the Housing Families holiday party to set up our Holiday Boutique. The Holiday Boutique allows families and kids to shop for free gifts, holiday items, and toys. Each family and child receives “pretend” money that they can use to buy various items. In addition to the holiday boutique, the families enjoy a night full of food, music, Santa Claus, and crafts. New this year, Allison added printed pictures with Santa. Families were able to get a framed picture to keep and cherish.
Origami4Kids has continued to make origami products and sell them at a local farmers market and online. All the proceeds are donated to Housing Families Inc., whether in the form of a check, cleaning supplies, back to school supplies, or Birthdays2Go boxes. Birthday2Go was created with Origami4Kids proceeds, allowing homeless families to pick up a box with all the basic birthday party supplies.
At Housing Families Inc summer programs and holiday parties, we teach the children how to make their own origami cards and we organize drives at our high school. The most recent one was a great success for collecting teen holiday gifts and gift cards. Since we are both teenagers, we are particularly sensitive to not forgetting about the teens. We’ve noticed that in general, people prefer to donate gifts to school-aged children rather than teens.
Allison: When I was a middle schooler, I started Card Making for a Cause, where we made Valentine’s Day and holiday cards. They were sold to teachers and students, with proceeds being donated to Housing Families Inc. Additionally, I recently donated origami cards to the Hand+HeART Auction at my school. Students, faculty, and families bought the cards and other auction items with over $500 going to Housing Families. Besides volunteering, I am a level nine competitive rhythmic gymnast.
Alex: After seeing first hand the benefits of providing supportive services to enrich the lives of children experiencing homelessness, I wanted to help sustain this program financially. I raised $5,000 by writing grants and $8000 through a fundraiser where I hiked 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Besides volunteering, I love running cross-country and track.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
After working with Housing Families for many years, it’s been incredibly rewarding to watch the children grow up. Through our experiences helping at the Housing Families holiday party, seeing the smiles on everyone’s faces means the world to us. We’ve build lasting connections and memories with these children and we truly love every moment of it.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
Our experience has taught us that all children have the same basic needs regardless of their material possessions, race, gender, or family make-up, and seeing life from different viewpoints is important. Although many of the children lack material possessions and stable families, they are typical children who need attention, nurture, and fun.
Why is it so important for young people to be engaged in volunteering and service?
We think it’s important for young people to volunteer because the world should know that anybody can help and make a good impact on other people. Even small efforts can be helpful and large benefits for people in need. Whether it’s volunteering or donating some money, we are the future and should help future generations to come.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
As always, the Housing Families holiday party is one of the highlights of our year because it gives us a chance to see all of the families at once. In addition, Alex is looking forward to the Housing Families summer program, where he serves as a camp counselor, because he enjoys playing with the kids. Allison is looking forward to tutoring in the after school program as she is now in high school.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
Giving back to your community is one of the best ways to meet new people and learn compassion. Through our experiences, we have felt we are the lucky ones to be able to participate in the lives of these children. We have also learned that almost anybody can end up homeless, so you never know when you will be the one who will need help.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
We are children wanting to make a difference. If we can make a small difference, anyone can.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Alex and Allison? Find local volunteer opportunities.