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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."

Former officials from the George W. Bush administration and campaign launched a super PAC in support of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, declaring they "knew it was time to take a stand." They claim that they seek to unite and mobilize a community that is historically Republican voters. The group, consisting of at least 200 former officials, aides and Cabinet secretaries, formed "43 Alumni for Biden" to block President Donald Trump from winning a second term. They claim on their website that there have been "far too many days filled with chaos emanating from the highest levels of government" and that "political differences may remain among us, but we look forward to a time when civil, honest and robust policy discussions are the order of the day."

When I read about "43 Alumni for Biden," it gave me a great sense of hope. Even though I didn't vote for Biden and I'm not a huge fan, I am liberal and think it's important to accept anyone willing to admit that they are disappointed in their political party. It takes someone with real strength to admit the damage that has been done to our nation by Trump's presidency. It takes even more strength to say they voted for Trump, they were wrong and now they want to fix it.

My optimism has less to do with what side they are on and much more to do with the act of reaching across the isle. Almost all politicians have their heels dug on issues that align with their respective political party. The only thing worse than someone trying to prove that they are always right is someone putting all their energy into proving that their counterpart is consistently wrong.

What is even more counterproductive is the person who waggles the "I told you so" finger in the face of someone who has the audacity to change their mind and actually agree with them. Why anyone would shame someone for having the courage to admit they were wrong is a concept that befuddles me to this day. Yet it happens more often than not. The fear of being ridiculed plays a huge role in our inability to be vulnerable. We have an opportunity to come together as a country. As long as we all grow the hell up.

When a politician changes their stance on an issue whether it is because of new information or just a change of heart—especially after reflecting on things and keeping an open mind, they are labeled as a flip flopper. Somehow it seems like they have more credibility if they can say that they believed something all along because it makes them look smart. Ask yourself, who do you trust more: someone who always says they are right or someone who can utter the words "That's a really good point?" We need to take it upon ourselves to be the bigger person.

Remember all that progress you made in your relationship when you screamed at your partner with guns a blazing telling them how wrong they were. Remember when they responded by telling you that you had excellent points and they would try and do better from now on. Oh, wait. You probably can't because that never happens. But I could be wrong (see what I did there).

Now imagine a time when you might have made a mistake, and your partner speaks to you with tenderness and understanding with the inevitable dash of disappointment because, lets face it, you deserve it. I think we would all opt for the undesirable cherry as opposed to a full on sundae of shame.

We are imperfect emotional beings and protect our psyche like a dog learning the boundaries of a newly installed invisible electric fence. Once our pride gets zapped, we are less likely to venture out as far, and in fact, will most likely recoil deep within the boundaries of our comfort zone.

The people involved with 43 Alumni for Biden have been able to reassess the state of the Republican party to which they held such loyalty. Just because they are supporting a Democrat in Joe Biden, doesn't mean they need to turn their back on their traditional Republican views. This is about more than just taking a step back and putting aside any blind loyalty one might have to their respective political party. It is unclear what percentage of the organization voted for Donald Trump in 2016. I am going to guess not very many punched a chad for Hillary Clinton.

When you vote for someone, you have put your trust in them. That leads to defending any perceived missteps they may have had because you advocated and believed in them. The more controversy there is, the more you feel the need to justify your vote and defend them even more. Then you find yourself defending the fact that you are defending them and believe the negative news coverage is a lie or a smear campaign.

I did it with both Bill and Hillary Clinton in the midst of everything that was being said about them. Then I stopped and thought about what my thought process would be if it was George W. Bush that was being accused of the exact same things. It was the moment I realized I wasn't being honest with myself. The diagnosis? We protect our ego on subconscious and primal level and fear the vulnerability that comes with admitting that we were misguided. Once we are able to face that, we can really get to the core of why we don't budge.

We are going to need all the communication skills we can muster up because if you think the months were bizarre leading up to the 2016 election, I am pretty sure Kanye West has something special planned for us. Buckle your seatbelt and open your minds because just when you thought 2020 couldn't possibly have any surprises, things are about to get even weirder.