Column: Creating “Division I” philanthropists

A lot of attention is paid to the best high school athletes, the brightest students and the most gifted artists. But what about the teenage philanthropist?

There are no games to watch, no art openings to attend, no concerts to listen to, but these kids are just as rare, maybe even more so. And although most high schools in our county have some sort of community service component attached to graduation, for most students, it’s a box to check; another requirement in the long list of things to do to earn a high school diploma and get into a good college.

But then, occasionally, if you are lucky, you come across a student who is doing something so profound that it changes the community service definition completely. I met someone just like that last week. Her name is Mary Grace Henry and
she’s changing lives, one girl at
a time.

At just 12 years old, armed only with a small sewing machine and a big plan, Mary Grace started an organization called Reverse the Course, which uses proceeds from sales of headbands and bows Mary Grace fashions herself to educate girls in Africa. To date, she’s helped educate 34 girls for 81 years.

That’s a lot of headbands and bows.

When Mary Grace told me her story, it was hard to believe that someone so young could have the confidence and determination to take on such a big mission. She credits her family and her education.

“I attended Sacred Heart Acad­emy in Greenwich, Conn., since kindergarten, and there are five goals that are ingrained in us as citizens in our daily lives. Number three, ‘social awareness that impels to action’ is a very important one for me. There were always opportunities for community service at my school, which made me feel empowered. But I was looking for something more—a deeper connection to the people I was helping. I grew up in a family with two much-older
siblings and, as a child, I was always with people much-older than myself. That gave me the confidence to take
ownership and initiative,” Mary Grace said.

Maybe waiting until high school to require community service is too late. It could be that exposure at a younger age, when life is less hectic and minds are more open is the key.

“I feel that there has been a lot of movement driven by kids for change. I think that kids now are becoming more involved in community service because they want to be active participants and make a difference. This will not happen overnight, but I think that is the direction we are moving in,” Mary Grace said.

And volunteering at a young age is beneficial for everyone involved. Children who serve others are less likely to become involved in at-risk behaviors.

A research study, entitled “The Troubled Journey,” conducted by the Search Institute, examined the lives of 47,000 children in 5th through 12th grades in public schools across the United States. The study results indicated that children who served just one hour or more a week of community service were less likely to be involved in at-risk behaviors than those who are not active in volunteering.

Mary Grace has learned a lot from her experience.

“My work ethic has improved. I have a timeline and people are relying on me. Seeing the photos of my students keeps me focused. If I’m having a bad day, the photos remind me of what it’s all for. I’ve grown more confident as a person and my public speaking skills have improved. I’m also open to more things and take more chances,” she said.

After an incredibly busy summer in which Mary Grace traveled to Kenya to meet her students and created merchandise for all of the summer sidewalk sales and events in which she exhibited, she is now preparing to enter her junior year at Sacred Heart this September.

Not only will she continue to support Reverse the Course with a goal to educate100 girls, she will co-captain the varsity squash team and start thinking about applying to college. I have no doubt, wherever she lands and whatever major she chooses, Mary Grace will continue to blaze a path and set an amazing example for her peers.

However, even Mary Grace agrees that not everyone needs to take volunteering to the extreme to which she has taken it.

Which leads me to the next part of the article.

I became familiar with a wonderful organization while living in Tokyo. My children attended the American School in Japan and Room to Read has a strong chapter at the school with many student-led events. Room To Read was started 12 years ago by Microsoft executive John Wood and, to date, it has opened more than 1,600 schools and more than 15,000 libraries, distributed more than 12 million books—including more than 850 self-published original local language titles—and supported more than 20,000 girls to succeed in secondary school and beyond in Africa and Asia. And Room to Read says it’s just the tip of the iceberg. They aspire to reach 10 million children
by 2015.

“Room to Read’s Students Helping Students program has grown to see inspired youth, ranging in age from grade to graduate school, raise nearly $2 million by participating in read-a-thons, hosting book swaps, camping out in libraries or tutoring early readers,” said Wood, Room to Read’s Founder and board co-chairman. “The broader the reach of our youth engagement program, the more empowered the next generation will be in all parts of the world to solve the complex social issues we face today. We are creating not only a great force for change, but a new generation
of leaders.”

If you know of a student in Westchester County who would like to get involved in this organization, Carine Verschueren, the Westchester chapter leader of Room to Read says “Room to Read will have Students Helping Students clubs set up in 10 different schools in the county this fall with the goal to build a library in the developing world. Education is the game changer. We believe that it is important for children to realize they can make a difference in their own creative way and that it will have a lasting impact not only on their own perception of the world, but on the lives of the children in developing countries in Africa and Asia, who will benefit from a quality education.”

For more information write to Westchester@roomtoread.org.

To contact Mary Grace Henry about Reverse the Course, you can write to:
mary_grace@reversethecourse.org.
Mary Grace’s upcoming sales in our area:
Sept. 16, Scarsdale High School Talk
Oct 2 and 3, Shenorock Fair in Rye
Oct. 6, Warwick Applefest

“I’m always on the lookout
for a great story, an amazing
restaurant, an unusual day trip or a must-see cultural event in Westchester County.”

To contact Lisa, email
lisa@hometwn.com.
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@WestchesterWand