"Time is sometimes the best thing a person can give. Don't underestimate it."
Chelsea Makela, 17, of Brentwood, California, participates in an "Adopt a Family" program that gives holiday gifts to families of oncology and hematology patients in her community.
What kind of philanthropic or volunteer work did/do you do?
Chelsea: I work with oncology/hematology patients and families. My favorite project is the holiday "Adopt a Family" project. It's usually run through my school, so students can be involved in penny and gift drives. Last year we assisted four families of seven or more. We were able to raise $1000 in gift cards and/or cash for the parents, ten gifts for each child in each family, and gifts for the parents. We always write a letter to the families, giving them our contact information if they choose to contact us for further help, and it's always anonymous unless the family chooses differently.
What is the name and location of the organization?
Chelsea: Key Club and Liberty High School Leadership, Brentwood, CA.
Tell us about the project, especially who benefits from this work.
Chelsea: Adopt A Family is run through the Oakland Children's Hospital Oncology/Hematology department. It allows people to adopt an oncology/hematology patient's family. The nurses and doctors of that department choose which families are in the most need and then distribute them amongst the adopters. The adopters then play the "Santa Claus" role and give the families gifts. I believe it gives some hope in situations that seem hopeless and tear childhoods away from young children.
What inspired you to get involved?
Chelsea: I was getting my weekly chemotherapy treatment. It was mid-December, I was nine years old, and all I could think about was what Santa would bring. I was talking with another young girl, who was in the Day hospital for her treatment, about what she wanted. She looked at me and said, "My mom said Santa can't afford our gifts this year." I was dumbfounded and wanted to do something, so we anonymously adopted her family and gave them their Christmas, or at least the gift part of it.
How did you first get involved? Through school? Your parents? Give us some details.
Chelsea: I got involved through my nurse, Debbie. After talking with the young girl, I spoke with my nurse about how to help and she told me about the program. I felt it was wrong that so much joy and hope could be pulled from someone's holiday, especially someone whose life revolved around cancer. I wanted to help put hope back into her world.
What is/was the best thing about your experience?
Chelsea: Through the years, the best thing has been the excitement you see in the kids when you walk in with tons of gifts for them and their siblings. They look so happy and joyful. It's one of the best feelings, seeing the parents tear up or become speechless. I never quite know how to respond, but it always feels right. And it's worth it every time.
What is/was the hardest part?
Chelsea: The hardest part would be getting the wish list, surprisingly. Most of the families are so humble and unselfish. They'll ask for socks, and that's it. We have to dig and beg for favorites and "golden" gifts, the gifts that will make their year. We try to do between nine and twelve gifts per person. We usually end up with families of five to ten people, including parents.
What was the biggest surprise?
Chelsea: The biggest surprise is always how much of a response we get from the community. My community pitches in so much. We always end up with closets full of gifts, and not just knick knacks, but expensive things like iPods, American Girl Dolls, and bikes. The local press and school papers always run the stories, and everyone is very responsive. It's very relieving to see how people care.
What new things have you learned as a result of your experience and how have you changed as a result?
Chelsea: It doesn't just touch or affect the people you're giving to. You see how people who are helping learn and are touched by the giving part. It's incredible to see how people change and see the world while giving to someone who is losing or truly has nothing. It gives you hope that there is still pure kindness without any expectations. I learn something new every year. I think the biggest thing I've learned so far is to not assume anything about anyone. Everyone is willing to help.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of getting involved in philanthropy or volunteering?
Chelsea: Do something you love. If you're passionate about the program or project, then people who get involved will become passionate, too, and you'll love what you're doing. Make it fun, and find creative fun ways to achieve your goals for the projects. Nothing is too different or unheard of. People respond to creativity very well. Be grateful for anything people give, whether it's their time or a dollar. People will give what they can, and a dollar to someone may be like a million. Time is sometimes the best thing a person can give. Don't underestimate it.
© Foundation Center
All Rights Reserved.