Thousands of children have rolled up their sleeves to help people in need over the past eight years thanks to a service organization called Little Helpers. It all started in 2010 when founder Tran Bui Smith had an epiphany.
“It just happened one day,” she said. “I’m looking around at all of the stuff that was in my house—all of the kids’ toys—and thinking ‘This was not how I grew up.’ ”
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Smith’s family fled Vietnam as part of the mass exodus by sea of up to 800,000 South Vietnamese. The refugees braved overcrowded, rickety boats—not to mention typhoons and pirates—to escape execution or imprisonment by the communist government. Tens of thousands died trying to reach safe havens such as Australia, the United States or Hong Kong.
“My parents were in their 20s, and my sisters were one and two,” Smith said. “The pictures that you see of people running and escaping by boat—that was us. We were boat people.”
After living in refugee camps, the family eventually settled in Arkansas. From an early age, Smith tackled household chores and cared for her younger siblings while her parents worked. Her early life was tough, she says, but it taught her many lessons—especially the importance of gratitude.
Smith wanted to make sure her children, who were two and five years old at the time, appreciated their abundant material and other blessings, she says. Already a longtime community volunteer, she approached two friends with an idea.
“I said, ‘What do you think about starting a group where we all volunteer once a month? We can just schedule an event, put it on the calendar and go,’ ” she recalled. “I feel like we schedule all of these things for ourselves and our children, whether it is sports or the gym or going out with friends. Why not make service a priority, too?”
After launching the first Little Helpers in Memphis, Tenn., Smith and her family moved to Rochester, N.Y., and started a chapter there as well. Today, Little Helpers has 17 chapters all over the country, with more starting this fall. A former TV news reporter, anchor and producer, Smith is a freelance video producer. She founded the Metro Atlanta chapter of Little Helpers in 2015 after relocating to Roswell. “I have families who come from all over the Atlanta area—from places like Acworth, Woodstock or Lawrenceville—to volunteer with us,” she said.
For the past couple of years, Little Helpers has generously supported Simple Needs GA through both volunteer hours and in-kind donations. On June 16, about 30 children and adults from Little Helpers gathered at SNGA’s Marietta warehouse to sort and organize inventory and donations, assemble Comfort Kits, put together no-sew blankets, and more.
“They’re a fantastic group of volunteers,” said SNGA Founder Brenda Rhodes. “It is so inspiring to see kids of all ages working alongside their parents to give back to their community.” Little Helpers’ donation drives have also benefitted SNGA’s clients in a major way, Brenda says. “Last October, they donated a huge pile of socks and underwear for our clients, and they’re planning to organize another drive for us this fall,” she said. “They’re amazing!”
Since 2010, Smith and the Little Helpers volunteers have cleaned parks, visited nursing homes, made sandwiches for the homeless, walked dogs at a rescue center and planted flowers at a shelter for abused women, to name just a few service projects. They deliver treats and thank-you notes to first responders in remembrance of 9/11 and routinely collect food, toiletries, backpacks, school supplies and other items for people in need. The group’s “Appreciation Station”—a table that volunteers sometimes set up at local festivals—is all about gratitude. “We put out cards, markers and pens and get people to stop by and write a thank-you note to someone who has been kind to them,” Smith explained.
Today’s conflict-ridden and social media-obsessed world can seem dark and chaotic, Smith notes, but when young people engage with their communities they are more likely to see the good in themselves and in others. That, in turn, can lead to lasting changes in their character. “I have seen it over the years,” she said. “It becomes a part of who you are.”
Now Smith’s children Ava, 10, and Jackson, 13, treat others with kindness all on their own, she says. “To me, this is as important as making good grades, staying healthy, having a good spiritual relationship, whatever it is,” she said. “It’s a big priority and a big commitment, but it is worth it. It is good for your heart.”
Occasionally, Smith concedes, part of her would rather sleep in on a Saturday than head to another service project, but the feeling never lasts long. “I have never, ever left a service project and thought ‘Boy, that was a waste of my time,’ ” she said. “You might go somewhere doubting whether you’ll really make a difference and then something powerful will happen. Maybe you’re the only person who sees it or experiences it. That’s all it takes to change you.”
For more information about Little Helpers, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://www.facebook.com/LittleHelpersofAtlanta/