Hello everyone. I had joined the 29 Day Challenge as an eighth grader in middle school. Shortly after participating in the challenge, I realized that I could contribute to this movement by creating a "29 Day Challenge for Teens." I visited three middle schools and documented the experiences of several teens in a 9,000 word essay titled "How a Month of Giving Can Change a Teen’s Life” Now 19 years old and a junior in college, I couldn't be happier that the Challenge has come back and am grateful that I can be a part of such a great movement. Below are excerpts from my essay which describe the first day of my personal 29-Day Giving Challenge and features the stories, comments and realizations of 5 teens out of 160 kids who rose to her challenge. Meet myself and two new friends, Anna and Kevin. Enjoy!
From My World to Our World We teens live in a world of Facebook, myspace, YouTube and iPods. Our days are filled with our homework, our sports, our friends. For myself, many “me” centered questions start swirling through my brain from the minute I wake up. I stress about projects due for school; I worry my acne will never clear up; I wonder if the boy I like will talk to me at lunch, and I think about what swimming techniques I need to work on to make cuts for sectionals. I think about my severe scoliosis and complain about the stupid back brace that I’m supposed to wear 24/7. You get the idea; we think the world revolves around US!!
One day I asked myself, what if we actually didn’t think the world revolved around us? What would happen if we turned our thoughts to others? I decided to find out.
To recruit kids for the 29-Day Giving Challenge I visited three schools: one a public middle school in my town; another a parochial middle school affiliated with a Catholic parish; and the third, a middle school run by the La Sallian brothers, for urban, “at risk” boys in need of extra support to learn. I told them the gifts did not have to be material, but could be gifts of time, talent, kind words or gestures, smiles or even hugs.
I found that most teens began with acts of giving in their own homes. They helped with ordinary chores, like vacuuming, cleaning their room, helping with dinner, setting the table, raking leaves, washing dishes, washing their parents’ cars, making lunches, folding laundry, and taking out the garbage. Some tackled bigger home projects, such as cleaning out basements, closets or refrigerators. Kids who took the challenge during cold winter months, bundled up in frigid winter weather to shovel snow from parents’ or grandparents’ driveways. Teens gave time to younger siblings: reading to them, playing with them, helping them with homework, helping them get dressed, or picking them up at the bus stop.
Like most teens, my friends are my second family. Through acts of giving, teens who took the 29-day challenge became better friends with their friends. Teens offered advice, help with schoolwork, and hair-dos; they gave more hugs, cheered friends at sports events, attended dance recitals, theater productions, and other performances. Gifts strengthened the bonds between friends.
Outside their families and circle of friends, teens tried on better manners, learning that politeness and courtesy connect them more powerfully in their communities. They shared smiles and “hellos” and remembered to say thank you. They shoveled neighbors’ driveways, carried bags of groceries, delivered baked goods, cared for neighbors’ pets, and offered cheery greetings. Others reached out to the larger community, donating out-grown clothing to the poor, or giving their own dollars to local charities.
To me, the most significant gifts were about to how teens treated each other. We all know that cliques form at school and kids are sometimes labeled as “geeks,” “nerds,” “stuck-ups,” “mean girls,” “book lovers.” This labeling can lead to kids making fun of other kids, bullying, spreading rumors and gossiping. It’s alienating. Cruel words are like venom. They hurt feelings, humiliate and embarrass kids, and can damage a reputation.
Rather than ignore or neglect those kids in school who are considered at best, “unpopular” and at worst, “freaks,” many 29Gifts teens gave gifts of respect and kindness to these isolated kids. They made an effort to talk to them, compliment them, or sit with them at lunch. Teens who took the challenge chose not to join in gossip, they often stood up for someone being ridiculed, or changed the subject when rumors were being spread.
After the 29 days, teens had much to say about the effects of their Giving Challenge on themselves, their families and communities. Whereas before the challenge they were not as aware and sensitive to others’ needs, most reported feeling more tuned into others who may be struggling or in need of help.
My First ‘Give’ Gianna, 16, author of “How a Month of Giving Can Change a Teens Life”
As I began the 29-Day challenge, I thought to myself, this will be a piece of cake. After all, I’m already a giving person. So I didn’t give much thought to what I would do on my first day of the challenge; I knew it would just come to me. I was right--it did. After a Sunday morning of work and household chores, my mother expressed that she wanted to go to my brother’s soccer game. I blew her off, because I had my own plans for the day. I envisioned finishing up my homework and heading to the mall with my grandma.
Starting out, we were running behind schedule and my mom was concerned that to stop at Grammy’s would make her late for the game. I could see my mom becoming anxious and knew she really wanted to see my annoying little brother play his stupid soccer game. I could’ve been a brat and insisted she continue with our plans to drop me off at my Grammy’s house, but instead I told her to scratch Grammy’s house and dash straight to the game. “Are you sick?” my mother asked. “No, it’s ok,” I said.
I felt like an ounce of my selfishness had been released. Normally I would have whined like a 5-year old and demanded that she go out of her way to make ME happy. But on this day I somehow felt different, I put myself in my mother’s shoes. All the things she’s done for me rushed through my head, like how she drives me to swim every day, how she proofreads my papers, cooks scrumptious dinners that I enjoy, cleans my pig sty (a.k.a. my room), and tucks me in at night. It was about time for me to reciprocate, even if it was in this small way.
I decided to make good use of my hour. No, not doing homework, but by checking out hot guys. This was some consolation. In between texting friends and my guy research, I managed to occasionally cheer my brother on. I actually found the hour relaxing and I knew my mother was happy. I realized that by accommodating my mom, I actually gave my day a lift. I felt a warm light inside of me; I knew that I had helped my mom and I felt good about it. After the game, there was still time to go visit my Grammy.
That night at our family dinner we all seemed more connected. We chatted about my brother’s game, his passing and assisting with many goals. We planned the week ahead and complimented my dad on his twice-baked potato recipe. And though my brother didn’t score a goal at his soccer game, I felt I scored my first goal at giving!
Rising Above Anna, 8th grade, who now “feels more comfortable with herself.”
The 29-day challenge wasn’t easy for Anna, who described herself as a shy person. She often found herself sitting alone in classes at school, feeling that outside of her small circle of friends, other kids didn’t really like her. She is a bit overweight and while she’s not “in” with the more popular kids in her class, she also describes herself as not “wicked weird” either. Kids sometimes make fun of her for the clothes she wears.
The gift that meant the most to Anna was given to a new girl in her class. Jessica arrived at Anna’s school in mid-year, after transferring to and from other schools. Anna was unsure about the details of Jessica’s situation, but her parent’s had divorced, and Jessica had moved around a lot. Jessica seemed to build a wall around her self and soon became the focus of other kids’ jabs, jokes and meanness. They made fun of her clothes and laughed and sneered at her. Worst of all, kids had begun to spread nasty rumors about her.
Anna, however, felt differently. She said to herself, Oh, we have a new kid in class, why don’t I just talk to her? She had made up her mind that she wanted to approach Jessica, but was filled with fear and anxiety. She worried she might be rejected. She was intimidated by other kids at school, and feared that if she talked to Jessica, she would also be pegged as “the weird girl.”
Anna compared her fear to a mountain. She pictured herself on one side of the mountain and Jessica on the other. The mountain represented all the reasons she shouldn’t talk to Jessica. Pushing against this weight of peer pressure, Anna began to climb the mountain, ignoring the comments from other kids. Anna’s compassion for Jessica began to outweigh her fears. She initiated conversation with Jessica. She asked Jessica about other schools she had attended, other places she had lived. Jessica initially responded only with nods and seemed disinclined to be friends. Anna hung in, continuing to talk with Jessica. Eventually Jessica opened up to Anna.
Soon, Anna’s friends followed her lead and also began to include Jessica in their group. Overtime, they invited her to their lunch table, and included her in conversations; they acted as though Jessica had always been their friend.
Anna was proud of herself for reaching out to Jessica. She had risked being cruelly judged by her classmates and suffering the rejection of her own group of friends. In doing so, she gave herself a gift that helped her overcome her own shyness and fear. Her simple gift of giving led to a blossoming friendship. *****
Like Father, Like Son Kevin, 12 years old, 6th grade, “It’s not that hard to just give one gift.”
Kevin’s father died when he was a young boy and he lives with his mother, grandmother, and two brothers. Kevin often tears up when he thinks about his dad.
Kevin started his 29-Day Challenge reflecting that people today seem to be rude, self-absorbed, and uncaring. “If people were nicer, they’d get niceness back.” Kevin began the challenge helping his younger brother with homework, helping his mom cook dinner, staying after school to help teachers clean up their classrooms. Some days he gave more than one gift.
One day Kevin was walking home from school with his cousin, Moses. They passed a basketball back and forth and Kevin was in a good mood. As they came to the Goodwill store, Kevin thought to himself I have a lot of clothes I’m not wearing, why don’t I donate some? Kevin thought about his dad who had been an influential member of the community. He saw his dad as his role model and wanted to follow in his footsteps. He quickly turned his idea into action.
Kevin ran home and furiously began to mound a pile of clothes on his bed. He spent the entire afternoon trying on, sorting, and separating clothes that fit from those that were too snug. He was afraid that his happy mood might change as he went home to clean out his closet, rather than play basketball with his cousin. Instead, he felt a surge of kindness running through him.
His pile of give away clothes gradually began to heap, as did the happy feeling inside him. As he filled a large garbage bag with his outgrown shirts, jeans and sweatshirts, he glanced at his cousin and hoped in his heart that Moses would catch the giving bug, too. The two boys headed out to the charity store. This time Kevin carried not a basketball, but lugged his bag of hand-me-downs, wearing a huge smile across his face.
While Kevin was excited, he was reluctant to enter the Goodwill store. He worried that the adult workers might minimize his donation and not take him seriously, or reject his outgrown wardrobe. At the same time, Kevin thought about himself and was aware that he had never given like this before. Kevin felt that he had reached “a higher level in giving to his community.” Head held high, Kevin marched into the store. Greeting the woman at the sales desk, he told her how he had put together a bag full of clothes that didn’t fit him. The woman seemed impressed and very happy to accept his gift. Kevin decided that this would be the beginning of many more donations to the charity.
He was now awakened to a change going on inside him. He described the 29-Day Challenge as traversing through a tunnel. At the beginning he felt like he was “lagging along” but then began to feel a “push forward.” As the challenge progressed, he felt like he was in a rocket, ready for take off. It was an exhilarating feeling!
For Kevin, the 29-Day Challenge was a wake-up call to giving. While thinking about his dad often brought him down, Kevin found that giving to others lightened his heart. He decided that one way he could carry on his dad’s legacy was to continue to give to his own community. He began to plan how he would proceed: cleaning up the neighborhood, babysitting for younger kids in his area, and more trips to the Goodwill store seemed like a good start. The best part of giving, Kevin says, is “watching peoples’ faces light up when you’ve helped them, and their expressions of gratitude.”
“I’m still continuing the challenge. Bit by bit, I’m making my community a better place to live.”
One of the common revelations that teens shared was that by showing kindness, being helpful, and giving gifts, they not only bestowed happiness on others but felt happier themselves. Now they feel like more caring, more considerate, more helpful and more generous sons and daughters, siblings, friends, students, classmates, and members of the community. My hope for teens everywhere is that these sample stories will inspire you and give you something to think about. I hope that you will log out of “myspace” and log in to “ourspace.” While many adults in society criticize us teens for being self-centered brats, and very often we are, these stories contain the seeds of powerful hope. I hope the experiences of these 29-Day Giving Challenge teens offer a future glimpse into the caring and compassionate adults we are becoming.