Teaching Our Kids About Charity, Empathy & Giving Back
By Cris Pearlstein
Teaching our children about the concepts of charity and empathy seems to be more important now than ever. With everything going on in the world today (specifically, the situation unfolding in Ukraine) it can feel overwhelming to think about. While we might decide to not discuss complicated world events with our little ones, many parents want their kids to be attuned to the disadvantages that exist in the world. They want to instill gratitude, awareness and a sense of responsibility. They want to teach their kids about giving back. These concepts can be difficult to communicate to a toddler, but according to Jessica Jackley, founder of Alltruists, it is possible. Here she talks about how you can model a spirit of service, how actions speak louder than words, and how being a contributing member of your community is a great way to “build that empathy muscle in kids”.
Q: What is your history of volunteering and charity work? When, where and how did your passion begin?
A: I always knew I wanted to help people, but I didn’t have a specific focus for a very long time. I wasn’t sure who exactly I wanted to serve, or where, or in what way. Eventually I learned about micro-finance, and I was completely intrigued by it. I ended up quitting my job and moving to East Africa where I begged my way into an unpaid internship. That internship changed my life.
It was there that I heard stories in-person, firsthand, from individuals who were running micro-businesses (goatherds, seamstresses, farmers, carpenters, and so on). They had great potential but no access to capital. This was a strikingly different story than the stories I’d heard growing up from well-intentioned nonprofits that wanted a donation. These stories weren’t based on sadness and suffering but instead hope and potential. They were stories of entrepreneurship. I saw how a tiny bit of money, even just $100, could change everything for these entrepreneurs. So, I started Kiva way back in 2005 as a side project. The goal at first was to help a few friends in Uganda raise a few hundred dollars to grow their ventures, $25 at a time. That grew. And grew some more.
Q: Tell me a bit about the origin story of Alltruists. The why behind the company.
A: I have four beautiful kiddos (identical twins, Cyrus and Jaspar, 10; Asa, 7; and Soraya, who just turned 2) and during the pandemic, our world became so small and insular. It felt like we were at home, endlessly consuming without stopping to reach out or give anything back to others. Even before the pandemic, it was tough to participate in traditional in-person volunteer activities with kids. Meaningful volunteer opportunities often don’t allow children, plus with kids it’s so much harder to schedule. It was out of this frustration that I launched Alltruists, so that families like us could participate in kid-friendly volunteer experiences from home.
Each month Alltruists launches a new experience focused on a different issue, from homelessness to hunger to clean water and more. In each box there’s inspiring educational content and an actual volunteer project that has real-world impact — which we design in collaboration with awesome nonprofit partners. For instance, kids might personalize a welcome kit for a new arrival refugee child, or build a pollinator hotel for solitary bees, or make a card and keychain given to families in Mexico moving into their very first home.
Q: How do you explain the concept of charity to your kids? Are they involved in Alltruists at all?
A: There’s a lot to say here but the short answer is yes. We talk about how lucky we are and how it’s our job to be generous and help others who are not as lucky. We talk about our values as a family, how we believe in justice, generosity and equity. We’ve also talked a lot over the years about the concepts of access and opportunity. They know that having these things is like getting a chance or a turn. They know that not everyone has the same kinds of chances or the same number of turns in life.
In terms of being involved with Alltruists, absolutely! They give me feedback on early product ideas, copy and activities. Our current March box lets kids make cat toys and dog toys for shelter animals, and they actually helped ideate the whole thing. In fact, we invest a lot of thinking and creativity into the actual box itself — it always becomes another thing, whether it turns into a lantern or a diorama or something else. For the Shelter Pets box, my kids thought it’d be fun for the box to become an a giant origami-style puppy, so that’s what it is!
Q: What tips do you have to get kids involved at a young age?
A: For toddlers and very young kids, parents can model a spirit of service with their behavior and talking about the positive consequences of kind actions. For instance, your toddler may want to pick up every piece of garbage off the sidewalk. You can help them safely pick up and dispose of the trash, and as you do, talk about it. Name it as a kind way to care for nature and to keep your neighborhood clean.
Another small thing is we always encourage our kids to thank someone when they are outside of our home. Whether it’s at the grocery store, a restaurant, or anywhere where people are at work around us, we encourage them to go up and practice saying thank you. Noticing the contributions others make and acknowledging those who often get overlooked is a great way to begin to build that empathy muscle in kids.
Q: Tell us about the cause that is most near and dear to your heart. The one that you personally support, volunteer for, and donate to. Why is it important to you?
A: Our family has supported refugees and displaced people over the years. Sometimes we do it financially, and other times we welcome them into our home until they can find permanent housing. It’s an issue that’s especially close to our hearts because my husband fled Iran at a very young age, and has glimpsed what it is like to flee one’s home in the pursuit of safety.
Of course, the events unfolding in Ukraine are on all of our minds right now. Since the conflict began, nearly two and a half million people fled their homes, and many more are being displaced every day. Watching this happen from afar is hard, but there are ways to help. Some great charities to support include UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children and Global Giving’s Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund.
If you want to take action at home and involve your kids at the same time, assembling a care kit for a new arrival refugee child is a wonderful way to participate in a hands-on activity that directly supports a recently relocated refugee in the United States.
Wars and conflicts are scary for all of us. But they present an opportunity to empower our children to engage with the world around them courageously and with compassion.
Jessica Jackley is an entrepreneur and investor whose work focuses on the goodness in all of us. Currently, she is the founder of Alltruists, offering kid-friendly volunteer and impact projects for families created in partnership with nonprofits. She is best known as a co-founder of Kiva, the world’s first crowdfunding site allowing anyone to lend as little as $25 – at 0% interest to entrepreneurs around the world. Since it launched in October 2005, Kiva has facilitated over $1.5B in loans. Jessica lives in LA with her husband and their four young children.