Story by Pamela A. Keene
On Oct. 17, 10 years ago, Michelle Hodgson, a former DeKalb County school teacher, held a remembrance of her late son, Cole Clayton Hodgson, on what would have been his first birthday. He passed away at five days old from complications from Down syndrome. The gathering of family and friends assembled bear backpacks filled with toys to share with area nonprofit groups.
A year later, word spread and more groups of neighborhood moms and kids joined in to help. By the third year, the celebration outgrew her home, and Hodgson realized that the act of giving instilled a sense of responsibility and accomplishment for young people.
“That first birthday party for Cole quickly grew into what is now Children Helping Children,” says Hodgson, founder and executive director of the organization that now connects youth organizations and students with dozens of nonprofits. “So many schools require students to do community service, but when these same young people come together to work on projects they create and manage, it becomes something they do willingly, and they have fun at the same time.”
At 8 years old, Riley Kollas attended that first party. “At the time, I just knew I was doing something to help other kids and that was good,” says Kollas, now a senior at Lassiter High School in Marietta. “But Children Helping Children has really affected my life by reaching out to kids just like me, my own age, who have different circumstances and need help. And now to see all these kids who are so excited to be helping other kids, it really touches my heart to be part of it.”
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Hodgson did not expect that honoring Cole’s memory would lead to a movement that has touched more than 20,000 lives and has more than 100 active volunteers.
“CHC teaches children of all ages and backgrounds how to be advocates for change and leaders in philanthropy by first identifying their gifts and talents and then giving them real life platforms to serve in their community,” she says. “That’s the secret sauce: giving them input on the people they help and what they can do.”
As an early program nine years ago, CHC created a pen pal project to connect third-graders at Westminster School and Scott Elementary in Atlanta to give young patients at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta art therapy supplies. “When the students met, they came up with the specifics of the project, which children they wanted to help, and took the steps to make them happen,” Hodgson says. “They had so much fun the first year that the next year they made cancer bracelets for the children at Camp Sunshine, a special camp for children with cancer.”
In 2010, CHC first worked with participants at GiGi’s Playhouse Midtown, a Down syndrome achievement center, , helping them learn fine motor skills by making gingerbread houses. A year or so later, GiGi’s teen member Kevin Mackey spearheaded a project to create “happy” packets for new mothers of children born with Down syndrome. Teen members at GiGi’s now operate a once-a-month coffee shop called “Hugs and Mugs” at space donated in CHC’s King Plow Center office.
“This is a way for our participants to develop life skills as they age out of our programs,” says Fred Webster, site coordinator at GiGi’s Midtown location. “It builds their self-esteem as they learn job and life skills to become more independent.” The teens at GiGi’s decided to donate the funds to children at the Atlanta Mission.
Each year, Children Helping Children solicits about a dozen young representatives ages 12 to 16 from schools and nonprofits to serve on its Junior Board and create their own philanthropic projects that will be the foundation of LoveFest, the organization’s public event held each October in honor of Cole’s birthday.
The 2018 Junior Board members will showcase their ideas and engage community volunteers to help complete their projects on Oct. 21 at the Promenade in Piedmont Park. The event includes music, youth activities and 10 tents for the Junior Board members’ specific projects, such as creating, decorating and filling food bags for children at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, assembling art therapy buckets for CURE Childhood Cancer patients, and decorating collars and leashes for Canine Assistants (pets that work with children).
“Our previous Junior Board members return year after year to mentor our younger participants,” Hodgson says. “We provide platforms for these kids to shine, even if they may not choose philanthropy as a career. What they do helps them become stewards of service in so many ways. It is so fulfilling to see them blossom.”
Children Helping Children. King Plow Arts Center, 887 W. Marietta St., Studio S109. facebook.com/chc.atl
Children Helping Children will begin accepting applications for potential Junior Board members in October. You can learn more at an information booth at LoveFest or at facebook.com/chc.atl.
The group also offers Hodgson’s “Compassion Curriculum,” an initiative developed to engage all types of learners in neighborhoods, churches and schools using art, literature, music and math to teach kindness.