‘All giving matters’

Aidan Anderson’s charitable efforts started at age 7; now 18, he keeps working to help, inspire others

One fall evening in 2008, Aidan Anderson grows restless at an Atlanta restaurant after finishing his plate of sea bass and spinach. The slight boy with piercing blue eyes meanders over to a hallway, plops down on the floor and starts playing a harmonica.

In 2009, Aidan, who was 8 at the time, was featured in an AJC series that highlighted stylish Atlantans. AJC FILE PHOTO

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Donning a vintage sports coat and gray fedora, the 7-year-old feels too warm, so he takes off the hat. A customer at C&S Seafood and Oyster Bar drops a dollar bill into the hat, followed by another one until a steady stream of people walking by toss coins and dollar bills into the hat. By the end of the evening, after Aidan plays for less than an hour, his soft felt hat with a curled brim overflows in $80 in tips.

In 2009, Aidan, who was 8 at the time, was featured in an AJC series that highlighted stylish Atlantans. AJC FILE PHOTO

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On the way to his home in Marietta, Aidan quietly fantasizes about what he could buy with $80 — big things like a house or a car. He keeps thinking. But halfway home, Aidan reaches a different conclusion.

I have everything I need. I have food. I have clothes. I have a home. I have love.

“I want to give my money to sick children in Africa,” Aidan tells his mom, Toren Anderson.

This one decision changed Aidan's life and put him on an extraordinary path of giving.

What started as a small donation and a Facebook page named "Aidan Cares" has grown into a platform and now a nonprofit designed to inspire people of all ages to develop a culture of compassion and giving. Aidan, also a heartfelt singer-songwriter, has invested enormous amounts of time and energy into helping others — at veterans hospitals and schools, children's hospitals and in some of the most impoverished, crime-infested swaths of Atlanta.

Aidan Anderson and Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Aidan was awarded a special Coretta Scott King A.N.G.E.L. Award. CONTRIBUTED

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Maybe you've heard about Aidan, the local boy who did his first TEDx talk at 13. He's been featured on NBC's "Today" show and has received numerous humanitarian awards. The King Center presented Aidan with a Coretta Scott King A.N.G.E.L. (Advancing Nonviolence through Generations of Exceptional Leadership) award. He's inspired others through speaking all over the globe, including leadership summits in England and San Diego.

Aidan is now 18, and he makes guiding others to find their way for giving back a top priority.

Aidan Anderson plays with kids at Samuel L. Jones Boys & Girls Club in Decatur. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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On a recent afternoon, Aidan stood in the cafeteria at Fernbank Elementary School, a DeKalb County school, surrounded by children forming a circle. After being small for his age for so many years, Aidan had a recent growth spurt and now stands close to 6 feet tall.

Standing at the center, wearing jeans and an aqua shirt, and still as cute as ever, he quieted a crowd of rambunctious kids with a deeply felt message.

He told them all giving matters — diapers for day care centers, towels for animal shelters, serving a meal at a homeless shelter, even a smile.

"I want to come back and talk about other things. But right now, I have something really important I need to talk about. … You cannot be a bully," said Aidan in December. Schools, organizations and companies often go to the AidanCares.org website to request Aidan to speak at a gathering. "You can smile at someone and be kind. It all matters."

Aidan just hopes his way of thinking can inspire others to do some good.

"I'm really not that special," said Aidan on a recent afternoon at his home in Marietta. "All kids can make a difference. It's about exercising that muscle and thinking about it day to day. There are little things all around us."

‘It just became our life’

Aidan decided to donate the $80 in tips from that evening of harmonica playing toward anti-parasitic drugs for sick children in Africa. Aidan’s mother had read to him an article about people suffering from intestinal parasites in Africa. Since four lifesaving pills cost $1, his initial donation netted 320 pills.

And even at 7 years old, giving wasn’t an entirely new concept. He and his mother would take casseroles to shut-ins and water, food and blankets to homeless people.

“I didn’t want Aidan to think everyone was white and lived on a golf course,” said Aidan’s mom, “even though we were white and once lived on a golf course.”

After Aidan donated the $80, a local businessman, also a family acquaintance, asked Aidan to speak at a meeting to kick off a new marketing company. Aidan jumped on stage, shared the story about collecting and giving away money, and then played an improvised, bluesy song he called the “Happy Song” with his silver harmonica.

It was a brief presentation with Aidan saying, “I realized I could do something to help people.”

A crowd of people responded with thunderous applause. Adults lined up to meet this adorable boy clad in slacks and a vest, and with thick brown hair and a side sweep of the flop. Small for his age, he exuded a combination of confidence and modesty. Several adults pledged to give money to charity, donate their time or both.

After the event, a family friend set up a Facebook page called "Aidan Cares."

From there, requests for help started pouring in — from hospices and hospitals to nursing homes and schools. Aidan and his mom couldn’t say no. They visited patients, offering prayer and words of encouragement, and Aidan performed songs — everything from improvised bluesy songs to Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.”

“There was no organized plan,” said Aidan on a recent afternoon at his home. “It just became our life.”

In 2014, during a trip to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Aidan visited Grant Gossling, who was 2 1/2 years old at the time and recently diagnosed with cancer. The bond between Aidan and the toddler was instant. Grant smiled at the music Aidan played, even started dancing. Over the next several months, Aidan visited Grant several times. Grant loved Spider-Man. Aidan learned how to play the famous Spider-Man theme song from the 1960s cartoon. Grant, who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a solid tumor cancer, died in March 2016. CONTRIBUTED

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Meanwhile, Aidan, who is home-schooled, has continued to play sports, meeting up with friends for basketball at least once a week. He is a fervent UNC basketball fan. He also has an affinity for music and spends at least an hour a day playing music. Aidan lives with his mother in Marietta. He has an older brother, Blake, who is 35 (and graduated from UNC, helping encourage Aidan’s passion for UNC basketball).

Five years ago, Aidan’s parents separated. Since then, Aidan (formerly Aidan Hornaday) changed his last name to take his mother’s maiden name — Anderson.

On a recent afternoon, Aidan chats with his mom about planning a birthday party for a child, about visiting schools and hospitals, about making a trip to Atlanta to deliver food to a family in need. Anderson, who works in marketing and consulting for nonprofits, and Aidan readily admit they sometimes stretch themselves too thin.

But they don’t second-guess their decision to help.

"When you know you are where you are supposed to be and doing what you are supposed to do, it's not that difficult," said Aidan. "It feels right."

Aidan Anderson greets children after he shared his story at Samuel L. Jones Boys & Girls Club in Decatur. He also performed songs, including “Stand by Me” and Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself.” HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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A knack for helping others

In the summer of 2016, Aidan started making weekly treks to Thomasville Heights, an area of Atlanta with a reputation for high crime and deep poverty.

Every Saturday morning, Mark Mozley, then-director of an Adopt-A-Block program, and who also lived nearby in Marietta, picked up the teenager. Mozley and Aidan gathered with others at a church known as the Atlanta Dream Center. The group dispersed into a handful of southeast Atlanta neighborhoods near the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and Thomasville Heights neighborhoods. They handed out bags of food that included loaves of bread, peanut butter and other staples; held Bible studies; played games with kids. The weekly service attracted a couple of dozen or even 100 congregants from several churches in metro Atlanta.

For many, the Saturday mornings were a check-off-the-list project. Most come and go.

But Aidan was different. Not only was he there every Saturday for over two years, but he had an ability to connect with people.

"When you are doing outreach, it can feel like a project. With Aidan, it was one human being to another," he said. "You want to show people their value and worth, and Aidan just did that naturally."

Mozley said Aidan wasn’t deterred, when on the very first day, he lifted a barefoot toddler off the ground to protect the child from broken glass, and the little one, without a diaper, accidentally went to the bathroom all over Aidan.

“It was just one of those things that can happen,” said Aidan. “I mean you can’t be mad at a little kid for going number two on you.”

Mozley watched in awe as Aidan played songs for children, and played with kids for hours at a time on the jungle gym.

“He was 15 and a kid at the age they are usually pouring themselves into their own stuff — video games, going to the mall, their studies or whatever,” said Mozley. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but the American culture is a little about the focus on me. But that is not the way it is with Aidan. He’s always been about helping others, and it always came so easy to him.”

Mozley said Aidan was doing what Jesus taught during his ministry — “to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Over time, Aidan and his mom developed a close relationship with Tori Fulton and her five children, who live in the Thomasville Heights neighborhood.

“Sometimes, it was throwing a football for a long time,” said Aidan. “There aren’t many men there, so kids would really gravitate toward me.”

Tori Fulton, who works part time at a car auction, said Aidan and his mom have helped her family financially and emotionally.

Aidan and his mom have planned birthday parties for the kids with their own money and helped raise money for gift cards, so the kids could pick out toys and clothes of their choice for Christmas. Aidan and his mom have also helped provide groceries multiple times. Aidan continues to see the Fulton family about twice a month.

"He brings good vibes," said Fulton. "He's always there for us. He is always the same. And he doesn't look at us differently."

Fulton said her kids adore Aidan to the point that they sometimes cry when he leaves from visiting them. She said they sometimes FaceTime him during the week.

“One day, all of them were crying,” said Fulton. “And Aidan was like, ‘Mom, I guess we have to take them with us.’ And they did take the kids for a while.’”

Fulton’s son Javon, who is 13, said he could tell Aidan was caring from the moment they met. They played football and basketball for hours. Javon said he’s happy Aidan and his mom have remained in his life, a steady presence even during the family’s most challenging of times.

“He’s so nice and he cares for people,” said Javon, a seventh-grader. “I consider him a brother.”

Aidan and Javon recently. 

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A role model for kids, adults

In recent years, Aidan has been booked for professional speaking gigs, receiving as much as $10,000 for large corporate events, and the money goes into their philanthropy.

Jennifer Barnes, a Keller Williams real estate agent in Atlanta, saw Aidan speak at an event in Austin, Texas, in August 2016.

"I remember thinking his level of maturity so far exceeded his age, and how extraordinary it was for a kid to be doing this," said Barnes, who lives in Sandy Springs. "It was really breathtaking. You held your breath waiting to see what he was going to say next. You knew this kid was on a mission. We all struggle with our own purpose, and here is a kid, at his age, who knew what his purpose was."

The setting was an enormous room at a convention and over 10,000 Keller Williams real estate agents from all over the world.

After returning home, Barnes wanted to meet Aidan and his mom and discuss more ways she and her family could help, and she wanted her son, Jackson, to meet Aidan. Over the past few years, Barnes and her son, Jackson, who is now 13, have participated in Adopt-A-Block Christmas efforts, and helped plan a pizza birthday party for a child in need.

“Aidan is a role model,” said Barnes. “For my son, as well as for me.”

But as Aidan enters young adulthood, he and his mom are looking for more impact — and more helpers.

Last year, Aidan Cares was approved by the IRS for federal nonprofit status. Aidan and his mom have established a "Youth Giving Initiative," which recognizes and encourages kindness and giving. They are also working to create an organized way to share information about volunteer opportunities, and an avenue for people of all ages to participate. They are pairing people with what they love — like connecting animal lovers with a local shelter or a child who loves to bake can hold a bake sale, and kids who love babies can volunteer at a women's shelter with children. Go to AidanCares.org to sign up.

Aidan and his mom are looking to expand partnerships with schools, and seeking to connect with others who want to create opportunities for children of different backgrounds to volunteer together.

“My passion is for finding other Aidans out there and activating them,” said Toren Anderson. “It’s like the Manning brothers who were never given a football or Beethoven never getting a piano.”

Aidan plans to take a gap year before college, and he then plans to study music. But he remains committed to Aidan Cares long term.

» MORE: Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta patient returns as nurse

Aidan Anderson performs at Samuel L. Jones Boys & Girls Club in Decatur. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Spreading his message

On a recent visit to Samuel L. Jones Boys & Girls Club in Decatur, Aidan speaks — and sings — with urgency and conviction.

He tells the group of kids about the day — now about 11 years ago — when he got bored in a restaurant and collected tips by chance, and then gave the money away.

Giving to others feels good, he tells them. And it doesn’t have to be money.

He tells the group of about 100 students not to fight meanness with meanness. The best way to defuse meanness is kindness. The kids are on the edge of their seats, listening to Aidan, who tells them he knows life is not always easy. He knows what it’s like to not have your father in your life. But you can lean in on people in your life who provide support, and you can lean in toward what you love, like your favorite subject in school, music, sports.

And even when you are struggling yourself, you can always find the time and ability to give.

"Find out what you love," he tells them. "And don't think you are not enough. It is always enough. … All giving matters."

There’s a slight pause. He’s armed with a guitar and harmonica, and a message.

“It all matters.”

He doesn’t just want them to hear his message. He wants them to live it.

What the kids don’t realize is he will be back within about a month to give a child there a new bicycle as part of a special kindness award called “Kids Who Care.”

Aidan Anderson shares his story as he performs for children at Samuel L. Jones Boys & Girls Club in Decatur on Feb. 22. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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  1. Give the gift of you. Be real and do you. Put down the device and focus exactly on the person you are with. Any encounter without kindness and connection is not a win.
  2. Find your purpose and passion in giving. Give from a place that matters to you.
  3. No matter how small an act of giving, it matters.
  4. Hang with givers. Your crowd needs to be the giving crowd.
  5. No excuses! Giving and compassion need to be as much a part of your life as breathing, working and your relationships.
  6. Go to AidanCares.org to join the mission. Read the blog, spread the word, join volunteering efforts.