Megan Harvey is only 8, but she’s already learning the importance of giving.
She has started a project called “Toasty Toes” and aims to collect 1,000 pairs of new socks for needy children in the community.
“I feel bad for kids who have parents who don’t have money to buy stuff for them,” the North Tonawanda third-grader explained.
When asked what she’s specifically hoping to collect, she answers with great enthusiasm: “All sizes!”
Likewise, 15-year-old Samantha LaGamba; her sister, Vincenette, 13; and cousin, Zachary LaGamba, 15, have been collecting new and gently used Halloween costumes for distribution to any child who needs one in time for Oct. 31. They have accrued nearly 500.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are, you can do something for someone else,” Samantha said. “You don’t have to change the world, but you can try.”
The Diez sisters, of Ransomville, helped plant, water and harvest vegetables from a patio garden this summer to donate to the needy.
“I liked picking,” said Ellen, 11, who, along with her sister, Natalie, 7, grew tomatoes and peppers for donation. “I like to see what happens when you work hard.”
These young Niagara County residents have been participating in a program called “Kids Are Key,” part of the statewide initiative “Community Action Angels.” The individually driven projects are coordinated through the Niagara Community Action Program, or NiaCAP.
The Diez family’s garden bounty has already been distributed through local food pantries, but recipients will eventually be able to pick up the donated socks or Halloween costumes at one of three NiaCAP sites.
“This is about kids helping kids,” said Tammy LaGamba of Niagara Falls, the girls’ mother. “This makes my kids aware that not everyone is as fortunate as they are … that some might need a little help. And if you’re in a position to help, don’t sit back – do something!”
The program requires a child or family to come up with an original idea to help other children or families and write up a plan, implement it, then write a report on the project.
NiaCAP coordinated three such projects this year, and $100 in seed money was provided for each of the three ideas by the Stahlka Agency, represented by Kevin Bohn.
Pat Standish, who started the idea in 1997 in Wyoming County, saw it blossom in 2002 into a statewide effort, which she now oversees.
“Give a child $100 and ask, ‘What would you do with this money to help someone?’ ” she said. “This shows what kids can do when given the opportunity.
“There are least 65 such projects developed by kids this year throughout the state,” Standish said. “We have discovered that in a recession, children are really underserved, so through the years, our program has shifted its paradigm more to children.”
Standish explained that every county in the state has a nonprofit Community Action Program and that 20 of these participate in the Community Action Angel program, of which Kids Are Key is a part.
“This helps bring in resources that all families may be helped with, especially to help the families who fall through the cracks and the working poor,” Standish said.
She added, “If we can start kids off when they are young, what they learn from these experiences will carry on this idea of helping each other. So many of our bright, caring children leave this area because they don’t have a stake in their communities. What if they were able to make a difference at a young age and had that stake in their communities and stayed to make a difference here?”
The LaGamba cousins carefully considered what they might do to help children of all ages.
Samantha said, “We wanted to make sure we didn’t do the same thing everyone else does – like collect clothes or personal care items. We think kids can benefit from getting these Halloween costumes and have some fun at the same time. … We wanted everyone to have the same experiences we’ve had, but not everyone can afford to go to the Spirit store or Party City, and we wanted them to be able to choose their own costumes. Right now, we have some in baby sizes to about 10- [or] 11-year-olds.”
Carol Palumbo, NiaCAP’s family development and nutrition supervisor, said, “The whole idea is that anyone who needs help can receive this help. In many of our programs, we are bound by our funding streams’ rules and income guidelines, but through this program, anyone can accept help at any time. Our agency is really glad to be a part of this.
“We know that the earlier kids learn to give back, the better. Even in what they might think is a small way, they are still giving, because there is no ‘small’ way to give,” she said.
“The kids participating in this must write up a project outline and explain how they decided on this activity and the impact it had on them, so this gives them all kinds of skills,” Palumbo explained. “We will look to do this specific program again in the spring, but we always welcome help from children in the area who want to do a community volunteer project at any time.”
The LaGambas are actively seeking new or gently used Halloween costumes, and the Harveys are collecting children’s socks.
Donations of costumes may be made through Monday at these three NiaCAP neighborhood centers: 564 19th St., Niagara Falls; 316 Thompson St., North Tonawanda; and 160 Washburn St., Lockport. Donations of socks will be accepted for several more weeks.
In addition, anyone needing to make other donation arrangements may call Tammy LaGamba in Niagara Falls at 870-1863 or Kris LaGamba in Cambria at 523-2719 regarding the Halloween costumes, or Dawn Harvey in North Tonawanda at 812-8961 regarding the sock-collection project.
Carol Houwaart-Diez, whose daughters Ellen and Natalie tended the garden, said that while her family has enough property to support a large vegetable garden, they consciously chose a small patio garden to mimic what some of the NiaCAP clients might be able to maintain.
Her family harvested 120 pounds of vegetables to share with others through the NiaCAP food pantries.
“We found it so much more expensive to have a deck garden,” she said.
“In addition to plants and seeds, we had to buy pots and soil, and it would have been less expensive to plant a larger garden right on the property. But this way, the girls could see what it would it would be like for people who don’t have as much property, and it was a way for them to help other children and other families in our community.”
Dawn Harvey said her daughter, Megan, hopes to involve her Brownie troop in her sock-collection project.
“I think this is just wonderful,” Harvey said. “This teaches them when they are young to help others and not be selfish. We’re fortunate that we’re able to provide for our children, but we teach both of our kids that they need to be thankful and share the wealth.”
For more information on Kids Are Key, contact Palumbo at 285-6134.