Little Acts of Kindness With Big Impacts
Six-year-old and mother form nonprofit to help other kids
by Janet Rems, Fairfax Times
When 6-year-old Rachel wants advice from her most important role model, she doesn't have far to go — after all, she just has to speak to her mother.
"I really wanted a company. ... I wanted to be a big boss like my mom," said the soon-to-be first-grader at Little River Elementary School, chatting while snuggled next to her mother on the living room couch of their South Riding home.
Mom is Jen Sterling, president of Red Thinking, a new marketing and business communication strategies firm that is Sterling's third company. She is also the founder and a former partner at Hinge, a Reston-based marketing and advertising firm, and past chair of both the Greater Reston and Loudoun County chambers of commerce. She also donates her services to the Initiative for Public Art-Reston.
She and her daughter recently formed their own 501(c)(3) nonprofit company, the Let's Help Kids Foundation. The group assists children in need on a case-by-case basis, an extension of what Rachel sees her mother doing both professionally and personally.
The concept is simple — "To be able to touch kids with little acts of kindness ... little things with a big impact," said Jen Sterling — and the foundation has given four separate gifts since February.
Through a neighbor, they heard about a second-grade boy who was distraught that his parents, who do not yet speak English, could not afford a costume for Halloween this year. Gift cards given to families from a program at his school may be used only for everyday clothes, not costumes, they explained.
They never met their foundation's first recipient, but his very first Halloween costume — Spiderman — was sent through his teacher.
The foundation's second gift was coordinated through Reston Interfaith, a leading social service provider in Northern Virginia, whose assistance includes housing, food and financial support for the homeless and others in need.
The recipient was an 11-year-old Reston boy with autism who could not afford the bass fiddle he needed to play in his school's orchestra. The instrument was purchased using foundation funds, and this time Rachel presented the gift.
"It feels exciting and happy inside," she said of helping others. "You help them, and they'll help you or somebody else. If you're nice to a person, it's like filling a bucket with good feeling. ... It changes people's lives."
The fiddle thrilled a lot of people, including the boy and his single mom, according to Sarah Schultz, Interfaith's transitional housing case manger, who initiated the gift.
Schultz, 31, who admitted she was pretty thrilled herself, recalled the boy's excited and disbelieving "This is for me?" when he received the bass. His autism, she said, makes him extremely sensitive to touch, and the big bass is the only instrument he feels comfortable playing.
Rachel is a "pretty remarkable little girl with great dreams" and "is very selfless in her giving," Schultz said. "It's encouraging to me to see a child thinking of others at that age."
Another young person whose life was recently touched by the new foundation was a 13-year-old girl from Vienna who is struggling with thyroid cancer. Sterling became acquainted with her parents through her work with the Reston Chamber board. The foundation contributed to the cost of T-shirts saying "Bite Me Cancer," which the girl's team members wore during a Relay for Life in June.
The fourth gift — four admission tickets to Kings Dominion — went to a brother and sister, 11 and 9, respectively, whose mother is unemployed and whose father is deployed in Afghanistan.
Mother and daughter discuss all potential recipients, and Jen expects that as Rachel gets older, she will take over the foundation's decision-making reins.
The seed money for the foundation, $4,000, came from an old, almost forgotten retirement account, Jen explained. And as word of their new nonprofit venture is spreading, people are beginning to contribute.
"Rachel came up with the company idea at the same time I had the money just sitting there, and friends reminded me about my bucket-list wish to start a foundation," Jen said.
"Money didn't drive it; it was her idea," she emphasized. "If she's thinking this way at 6, I need to encourage it."
Altruistic thinking also is a hallmark of her new company, Red Thinking, Jen Sterling said.
"It's the whole pay-it-forward way of life — you do things for people," she said.