On a crisp December morning, 100 children and their parents gathered at Northfield High School for an event organized by the Kids’ Compassion Project (KCP). Most came bearing donations of socks, warm hats, stuffed animals, or crayons—supplies to fill 100 backpacks for the children who visit The Gathering Place, a nonprofit organization that serves homeless women and children at a day center in Uptown Denver.
Madeline Mierau and her parents, Kerry and Tobin, came “looking for ways to give back,” said Kerry. “There are not a lot of opportunities for kids younger than 14.” The Mieraus were third-time participants in a KCP event, which are held on a regular basis in Northeast Denver.
Since its founding in 2015 by Erin Oltersdorf and Shary Zampert, KCP has held eight events, benefiting a wide range of nonprofit organizations, including Freedom Service Dogs, Project Worthmore, the Anchor Center for Blind Children, and MaxFund, to name a few. The events have enjoyed increasing popularity and participation—this one filled up within three hours with a waiting list of 50 additional children.
“We have big plans for 2017 and how we’d like to grow our program and offer more opportunities,” which will happen with growing financial support for the founding organization, said Oltersdorf.
What sets KCP apart from other nonprofits is how deliberately it works to connect kids with the concept of compassion. At the event, Juliette Lee of The Gathering Place spoke to the kids about the women and children who come to her organization seeking help and what their lives are like.
Lee said kids who experience homelessness “have a lot of obstacles ahead of them … so our program tries to provide as much stability for them as possible. Their daily lives are very stressful. Our family program … offers a safe, enriching, supervised space for small children while their parents take courses, get counseling, use the computer lab. It’s a really special place.” Last year, The Gathering Place registered over 61,000 visits, including meals, classes and computer lab time.
Board member and psychologist Dr. Kerry Makin-Byrd helps to foster compassionate understanding at KCP events. She divided the participants into age-matched groups and gave them discussion guides. In these small groups, children learned about compassion as a specific response to suffering that includes awareness, feeling, motivation to help, and a willingness and action to relieve suffering. They then considered questions such as “How it would feel if someone you cared for didn’t have enough food to eat or somewhere to live?” or “What do you wish for the women and children who are served by The Gathering Place?” and “What could you do after today to help?”
Melissa Morris and her children Alex (14), Katie (11) and Lauren (7) had searched for a long time before finding an organization that had no age restrictions, “We are excited to all do it as a family,” said Melissa. The Morrises brought puzzles and three stuffed animals for the homeless children.
After the compassion exercise, Zampert directed kids and their grownups to a supply line where they filled the bright red (for boys) and purple (for girls) backpacks with supplies for children ages 2 to 5. Lee told the participants, “It is so precious to have a new thing that is just for them, and something of their own to hold their belongings.” Accordingly, the children were careful in their selections, matching up just the right socks, hats and stuffed animals for the recipients, whose gender and age were noted on lists carried by the volunteers.
Participants Olivia and Belle Martinez and their mother, Wendy, were among the older kids, at age 13, but were attracted to it because even at that age, “it’s hard to find a nice way to give to the community,” they said.
In addition to giving their time at the event, the Martinezes, who own Bob’s Volvo Service in Aurora, were business sponsors. They donated backpacks, coloring books, markers, and “lots and lots of gloves,” said Wendy. “You can never have too many warm gloves.” Other sponsors, including Clair Family Dentistry, SmartSpace, and Stapleton Children’s Dentistry, had provided bulk donations of toothbrushes, warm clothes and office space for the organization.
After filling the backpacks, the participants made cards for the homeless children, with simple messages like “You are awesome!” paired with colorful drawings. As they created their cards, the volunteers imagined what a child in distress might want to hear, what might cheer them up, and took care to express their messages of hope. Families volunteered to transport all of the backpacks and sorted donations to The Gathering Place at the close of the event.
To support or learn more about Kids’ Compassion Project, go to their website at www.kidscompassionproject.org.