I watched with eyes glistening with tears as my 12-year-old daughter presented the first donation from her nonprofit organization, Maya On a Mission, to a homeless shelter for women and children in Chicago. It was a moment to celebrate. She personally chose to donate hand towels and washcloths to symbolize her desire to wash away homelessness in children. As I looked at this young lady whose innocence was matched only by her concern for the less fortunate, I was proud of the deliberate steps my husband and I took in our efforts to raise a child who is not only physically healthy and intellectually astute, but who also has a true passion for community service. At that moment, I realized that our concern over our daughter’s love for electronic gadgets like the Wii, Xbox, and iPod was unfounded. Her love for modern gadgetry neither overshadowed nor negated her desire to give her time, talent, and treasure—the “triple Ts” by which our family measures true service.
How do parents who consider themselves community servants cultivate and sustain those triple Ts of service in their children? When should our efforts begin? I would argue that we must begin building a legacy of community service in our children when they are young—in utero is not too soon. We must communicate with our children on their level and help them understand that community service is as much a part of their regular lives as Disney.
In our efforts to teach Maya about her responsibility to help others, we enlisted the help of one of my favorite childhood authors, Dr. Seuss. In a strange way, I owe many of the values that my husband and I have instilled in our daughter to Dr. Seuss. His books teach fundamental values communicated through whimsical rhymes that children devour like bowls of ice cream, completely oblivious to the fact that they are learning. His books are timeless, and his lessons touch almost every topic parents could ever desire to teach their children.
Who can forget Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham or One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish? In The Cat in the Hat, he encourages us to be “who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” Dr. Seuss helped us teach Maya many things, including pride in her uniqueness, and not to be concerned about what others think.
Dr. Seuss’s advice encourages young and old alike to work hard and think independently, and lets us know that the rewards of doing so can take us to wonderful places: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own, and you know what you know. And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go,” in Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
We have taught Maya that a requirement for going to wonderful places is that she leave each a little better than she found it. Maya has a responsibility to serve and care for others, but we, as her parents, have a responsibility to ingrain in her an attitude of serving so that when she is an adult, her commitment will evolve into significant and impactful service. Dr. Seuss understands this concept perfectly and assists us by teaching children that they play a central role in making the world better.
While Dr. Seuss helped us start the conversation with our daughter about the important role she plays in making our world a better place, we ultimately knew that we had to teach her by example. As any great relay team member knows, both the giver and the receiver must be moving when handing off a baton. Likewise, my husband and I knew that if we were going to be successful in handing off the community service baton to Maya, we had to perform service in her presence.
So when we shared our “triple Ts” by providing legal assistance to poor and battered women, giving tax assistance to the poor and elderly, mentoring pregnant teens, serving on college boards, speaking at events for under-privileged children, teaching junior achievement classes, serving food to the homeless, and donating to support education and the homeless, Maya was right there by our side, observing, learning, and eventually, participating. When she was a young child, Maya served food during a Thanksgiving food giveaway at a local McDonald’s in a Philadelphia children’s hospital. As she grew, she helped package food for distribution to food pantries. She learned that not serving is not an option.
Over time, Maya started to formulate her own ideas about giving back. She decided that she wanted to focus on children who were less fortunate than she is. She developed Maya On a Mission, through which she feels empowered to continue our community service legacy.
Success is not simply tied to our degrees, income, or material trappings. We continue to teach our daughter that the true measure of our success is how we utilize the gifts of our time, talent, and treasure, because as Dr. Seuss so eloquently put it, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Dr. Seuss, The Lorax.
Donna Bunch Coaxum (email@example.com) is vice president, general counsel, and secretary of OSI Group in Aurora, Illinois. An earlier version of this article was published by the ABA Section of Litigation. Copyright 2011 by the ABA. Reprinted with permission.