By Janis Fontaine
The adage “Children learn what they live” is at the core of the Boca Raton-based nonprofit Samaritans365, a group that introduces kids to community service.
“I wanted my children to live in a community where people are nice to each other,” founder Laura Reiss said. Instead of simply wishing and hoping, she decided to help build it.
In 2008, the mother of three young daughters, then 4, 5 and 7, was asked to join the PTA at Sunrise Park Elementary, the school her children attended. She agreed, with the condition she could start a free, after-school club that would bring in representatives from local philanthropic groups to teach the kids about helping others and supporting the No. 1 tenet: Kindness matters.
The ultimate goal? A new generation of kind-minded humans whose actions would inspire others to do what they were doing: To be Samaritans 365 days a year.
There were 35 kids in that first club.
“The children were thirsty for it,” Reiss said. But the transformation reached beyond those kids, to their parents, the teachers and staff — and the other children.
To Reiss, the kindness contagion proved “the conversation was working.”
The program works like this: Ambassadors are trained to lead and help clubs. They arrange for speakers to come in and talk to kids about programs on which they’re working. The kids who are inspired volunteer to help, which is great because nonprofits can always use extra, enthusiastic hands and hearts.
For some kids, it might be an animal charity that needs help cleaning kennels. For others, it might be feeding homeless people.
“We can provide a plethora of opportunities,” Reiss said.
In the 10 years since Reiss started Samaritans365, she built it from one group in one school in western Boca Raton to more than 90 kindness clubs in eight states, with more than 350 trained ambassadors, and thousands of Samaritan members. The groups are mostly independent, but they do get training and some support from Samaritans365.
By 2014, the program had grown so much that Reiss created the Samaritans365 Foundation, committed to starting a kindness conversation in every school and community in the world.
As the organization has grown, so have the financial demands, Reiss said. And of all the challenges, money is the one that always makes managing an organization difficult.
“As we grew, I thought love and kindness and plenty of volunteers would sustain us,” Reiss said.
The problem, she says, is that people prefer to financially support the fun and pretty stuff: the parties and the highly visible activities. But paying for background checks, website upgrades and insurance isn’t glamorous enough to attract charitable dollars.
When the organization was smaller, it was easier to handle. Today it has a fundraising team and writes for grants. That is paying off: Samaritans365 recently received $142,000 from the state. Reiss plans to use the money to build kits to support the success of the clubs.
During the summer, Samaritans365 does kindness programming at summer camps. Children have helped make sandwiches at Boca Helping Hands and helped organize the warehouse at Forgotten Soldiers Outreach.
Piper Fults, a mother of three daughters, ages 5, 9 and 12, has been a Kindness Ambassador at Del Prado Elementary, her middle daughter’s school, for two years. She got involved at the request of her daughter and leads the group with some of the teachers. There are so many kids wanting to get involved, they’ve had to split the group in two, doing third grade for half the year, and fourth and fifth grades the other half.
Fults says her involvement with Samaritans365 has changed her as a person. “It feels so good,” she said. “My eyes weren’t open to it, but my kids’ eyes are.”
Fults says her parents were charitable, giving money to organizations they supported, “but not doing.” The girls carry kindness kits in the car, with a toothbrush and paste, soap, and the like. When they see a homeless person, the girls ask Fults to stop the car so they can give him or her a kit.
“I love it that they do it,” Fults said. “They’re so kind.”
But it’s not all about kids giving back. It’s also about the kids who need help. The adult volunteers interact with underprivileged children once a month with the purpose of bringing happiness and fun while instilling the values of kindness, compassion, and gratitude.
They do everything from reading stories to hosting a carnival with jugglers and clowns, games and treats. One month, the kids decorated “goodie boxes” for soldiers.
Kindness matters is the message, the mantra and the name of the global movement that Reiss wants to use to light the world.
For more information, visit www.samaritans365.org. ;