How do you get tweens to care about community service? Easy: Let them lead.

One day in 2016, the kids of the Ridgefield Boys & Girls Club in Connecticut met to discuss some hard truths.

"We had a guest speaker come in," says Boys & Girls Club supervisor Jeff Goncalves, who organized the talk for a leadership program within the group called Torch Club.

"It was to benefit the Friends of Karen organization, which helps families of children who unfortunately are suffering from a terminal illness."


Among the topics discussed was the idea that many sick kids miss out on key experiences in their childhood because of how their illness interferes with daily life.

All photos courtesy of Torch Club/Boys & Girls Clubs of America, used with permission.

The Club's leaders asked the kids how they would feel if someone they knew, someone their age, had to skip their birthday because their medical bills were too high for them to afford to celebrate, Goncalves recalls. "That really hit home with our members."

Lots of people have a notion of "tweens" and young teens as being self-absorbed. But the Club’s reaction to the Friends of Karen organization proves that’s not so.

"Our executive board members decided to come up with a project idea," Goncalves says. But any uncreative fundraising ideas were out of the question — as Goncalves explains, "They know that I hate regular bake sales" — so they had to think out of the box.

Their answer? "A bakeless bake sale."

The kids reached out to everyone on their Club’s contact list and asked for cake ingredients, along with all of the rest of the things one might need to throw a birthday party. Instead of baking cakes to raise money, they gave kids the opportunity to have one for their birthday by providing all the tools in a "birthday bag."

"Cake mix, candles, frosting, napkins, plates — pretty much anything that could go into having a birthday party," Goncalves says.

The project was a success.

By the end, they’d provided birthday bags for almost 20 kids who would otherwise have gone without. It was so successful that they even decided to enter their project in the annual Torch Club Awards, which recognize Boys & Girls Clubs around the country for community volunteerism and service. They won first place and received a grant from Old Navy's ONward! program, which helps support many of Torch Club's activities.

What was even more surprising, though, was that this group of middle schoolers responded to a pretty heavy topic — terminal illness in their peers — in a well-adjusted and actionable way.

"That age is tough to work with in general," Goncalves says. "But when you find something, you know, a cause or a passion or something that really hits home, it brings everyone together in a way where we can focus their attention to helping, more than scaring them or making it awkward."

Torch Club has figured out the key to inspiring middle schoolers is to act. Just hand them the reins.

"The key is truly to let them lead," says Teresa Welch, vice president of program, training, and youth development services for the national headquarters of Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

"A lot of times as adults we sort of forget that. We assume that they need us to lead them," she says. "But when it’s led by youth, that’s when they’re absolutely the most successful."

The Boys & Girls Clubs' mission, through programs like Torch Club is to teach leadership and life skills to young kids, in order to prepare them for the challenges of adult life. But those leadership opportunities have advantages in the present, too.

Leadership gets younger kids engaged because it allows them to decide which issues to address, Welch says, and they can pick issues that impact their own community. She gives an example where kids who liked to skateboard got in trouble for graffiti that went up on buildings near where they skate.

"The kids will start talking about, well, we’re in trouble all the time for having our skateboards because they think we’re the ones doing the graffiti. But that wasn’t us," Welch recalls.

But instead of allowing the kids to grow resentful of the authority with which they had their conflict, Boys & Girls Clubs youth development staff encouraged them to come up with a creative solution.

"So they did a project where they actually painted over the graffiti with these beautiful murals," Welch says. In doing so, the Club both helped beautify the neighborhood and learned how to solve a problem in their community.

The Torch Club program at Boys & Girls Clubs is showing all of us that getting kids engaged young is possible — and it has nothing but positive results.

Young people who volunteer improve their community, their relationships with other kids, and themselves. Civic engagement shows kids how to take their energy and emotions and channel them into something good.

"All research shows that when young people volunteer, feel part of their community, and are engaged, that overall they will be more successful," Welch says.

"That’s a big part of the job. It's why I love working in the field that I work," Goncalves says. "To change the mindset of caring about themselves and being that self-absorbed tween to thinking outside the bubble, outside their community."

"It's remarkable, and we see it all the time," he adds. "It's why a lot of people in our field stick with it for life."

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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