The young hear call to charity

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By David Filipov
Globe Staff / December 21, 2010

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They looked at the world around them and decided they could improve it.

They gave of their time. They made things happen.

A 9-year-old set out to fight world hunger with the Internet. A 10-year-old learned to sculpt balloons to help abandoned pets. A 12-year-old thought to put something under the Christmas trees of children who had less than he did.

And though the scope of their contributions ranged from the global to the local, they shared a conviction — that you do not have to wait until you are an adult to pitch in.

The balloon kid

Jacob Abbisso of Marblehead makes latex come alive. With a few deft twists and turns of his hands, the 10-year-old renders balloons into colorful mice, reindeer, and poodles. People come out to watch whenever he performs his craft, wearing a black bib brimming with colored balloons. And real-life animals — cats, dogs, ferrets, and other abandoned pets — benefit.

A couple of years ago, Jacob’s second-grade teacher told him to “be a giraffe.’’ By this she meant that he should stick his neck out for someone in need. Jacob decided to sell balloon sculptures to raise money for the Marblehead Animal Shelter.

“I really love balloons, and I really love animals,’’ Jacob said. “This was a good fit.’’

Sometimes, Jacob performs on the street, handing out balloon sculptures for any amount that people want to donate. He also does parties for $50 an hour. As long as they are not on school nights.

Earlier this month, Jacob’s balloons netted $138.23 at the Marblehead Christmas Walk. On a recent Saturday, he collected another $35 at a toy shop. Over two years, Jacob has raised more than $2,000.

“People come to events just because they know he’s going to be there,’’ said Pamela Dante, a volunteer at the shelter, who said the money is used for food, litter, and medical care.

Jacob has no plans to stop.

“I’m definitely going to keep doing it throughout my life until my fingers get arthritis,’’ he said.

An appetite to help

Dylan Mahalingam of Derry, N.H., used to get scolded for leaving food on his plate.

“I would tell him, ‘Dylan, do you know how much food you waste?,’ ’’ said his mother, Krithika Mahalingam.

That changed in 2004 when the family took a trip to India. Dylan saw poverty. He saw children his age — 8 at the time — working in the streets. He started looking at his dinner from a different point of view.

“I started thinking, ‘How could I get this food over to another place?’ ’’ said Dylan, now a 15-year-old sophomore at Pinkerton Academy in Derry. “I wanted to make a difference.’’

He aimed high. He would try to eradicate hunger and poverty, improve access to education, advance human rights, promote tolerance and gender equality, reduce the incidence of child mortality and HIV/AIDS, support a just economic system, and ensure environmental sustainability. These are among the Millennium Development Goals established in 2000 by a summit of 189 governments and heads of state. Soon after his India trip, Dylan, at age 9, created a charity and called it Lil’ MDGs.

Using the Internet to mobilize more than 20,000 people in 40 countries, Lil’ MDGs has helped raise $780,000 for victims of the tsunami in Indonesia, and more than $60,000 for hurricane victims. It has helped improve schools in Tibet, India, and Uganda, and sent school supplies to disadvantaged students in the United States.

Dylan travels the world to network and help raise awareness and win grants. He also finds time for tennis, karate, friends, and Sonic the Hedgehog.

“You don’t have to give up everything,’’ Dylan said. “But if you are passionate about something you can make a difference.’’

Filling void under the tree

Four years ago, 12-year-old Jonathan Woods of Duxbury realized that all the toy drives he knew about aimed to brighten the lives of little children.

“I asked myself, ‘What happens to the kids my age?,’ ’’ recalled Jonathan, now a sophomore at Tabor Academy in Marion.

He told his mother he would start the Under the Tree Foundation when he was “rich and famous.’’

She responded: “You don’t have to be rich and famous to make a difference, and don’t ever forget that name.’’

He did not forget it. In 2007 Jonathan created the Under the Tree Foundation, which has raised more than $20,000 to provide Christmas gifts to the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester. Each year, the charity requests a wish list from 50 teens — a CD, or a baseball hat, or a basketball — and then solicits donors to help purchase the gifts.

The charity also hosts outings for dozens of teens — last year, they attended a Boston Celtics game; this year, a dinner-and-a-movie night is planned.

“Imagine, at 12 years of age, this kid made a decision to help other kids,’’ said Bob Scannel, president and chief executive of the club. “His example should inspire others, youth and adults alike.’’

Jonathan said the moment when he delivers the gifts and sees the happy faces reminds him why he does it.

“Something so easy as donating a hat or a basketball — it changes a kid’s holiday,’’ he said.

Volunteering to lead

Daiquan Bradford was 13 when he saw the power of activism. His godbrother was working with a group that organized block parties to make the community safer and bring neighbors together, and lobbied politicians to create jobs for children.

“They were helping out,’’ said Bradford, now a 16-year-old junior at New Mission High School in Roxbury. “They were making the community better.’’

Bradford was inspired by the idea that jobs could reduce violence in neighborhoods like his own in Roxbury. He began volunteering at the Youth Force of the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation, and carving out his own path as a community activist.

In the past three years, Bradford has campaigned for programs to put at-risk youth to work. He speaks at job fairs for teens. He has gone door-to-door to ask businesses and organizations to make more jobs for youths.

“A teen was telling me about how he was doing drugs, and then he got a job as a park ranger,’’ Daiquan said. “He learned how to cooperate with people.’’

Daiquan now has a paid job doing some of the work, but his decision to volunteer at an early age has inspired adults.

“To see a 13-year-old who wants to make change and then gets involved, that to me is inspiring,’’ said state Representative Carlos Henriquez of the Fifth Suffolk District, who met Daiquan at a recent job fair.

Daiquan takes demanding advanced placement classes in biology, history, and literature. He balances his schoolwork and his activities with the Youth Force, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, the Boston Student Advisory Council, and other groups.

“If an issue really matters to a person they are going to make time,’’ he said. “I find that I’m instilling spirit within the teen society.’’

Helping GIs phone home

Brittany Bergquist of Norwell was 13 in April 2004 when she heard a news report about a US Army Reserve sergeant’s family in Natick that was struggling to pay more than $7,000 in phone bills rung up by his calls home from Iraq.

Brittany and her brother, Robbie, who was 12, decided to help pay the bill.

“We ran upstairs and got all our money out of our piggy banks,’’ Brittany, now 20, recalled. “We had $14.’’

They told their friends, who donated a few dollars more. A local bank kicked in $500.

They realized their effort had the potential to catch on. And when they hit upon a simple, ingenious idea — collect old cellular phones to send to the troops with prepaid minutes loaded on them — Cell Phones for Soldiers was born.

Soon the Bergquists’ garage was brimming with boxes of cellphones. A company in Michigan offered to pay them to recycle the donated phones elsewhere, so the siblings decided to purchase prepaid calling cards and send them to the troops instead of the phones.

AT&T set up collection stations across the country. Donations of money, calling cards, and phones poured in.

To date, they have collected 7.5 million cellphones, which they have turned into 90 million prepaid calling card minutes.

The work required to organize this effort took its toll.

“On weekends when our friends were going out to play, we were at home, working,’’ Brittany recalled.

But Brittany, now a sophomore at Stonehill College in Easton, said she and Robbie, who is a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, believe the rewards of setting up a successful charity have outweighed the costs.

“I think we got way more than we ever would have as regular kids,’’ she said. “It means a lot for us to be able to do it for our heroes.’’

David Filipov can be reached at

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