Giving back: Beaufort County parents pass on spirit of volunteerism to their kids

abredeson@islandpacket.comApril 6, 2014 

Marcelle Bitner helps her son Aiden, 4, pick out things to put into his "Smile Bag" at the pavillion in Oldfield in Bluffton. Smile bags are ziploc bags filled with items that might be useful to a homeless person and she keeps the bags in her car to give out whenever she sees a homeless person. Bitner started making smile bags a few months ago to try and teach her son that it is important to give back.

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Every day as Marcelle Bitner, a special education coordinator for Ombudsman Educational Services in Savannah, drives to and from work, she sees homeless people.

At first, Bitner would pull over to share any snacks or drinks she happened to have in the car, but now she's better equipped -- now the Okatie woman gives out what she calls "Smile Bags," filled with food, water and toiletries.

Some of the homeless people she sees are sad and lonely, Bitner said, and she thinks the gesture -- while it won't solve all their problems -- might just brighten someone's day and give them some hope.

"There hasn't been one time that we haven't felt great and not smiled after helping someone with a bag," Bitner said.

Beyond that, though, Bitner's act of kindness has given her something more, a way to show her 4-year-old son Aiden how to be compassionate to those less fortunate. The two work together in what has become a fun mother-son project.

"He got really excited about helping the homeless," Bitner said.

Teaching children to care for others is not a new concept. People enjoy giving back to the community for a variety of reasons, and parents often want to pass on that value from a young age.

Trish Caudle of Beaufort believes it's important for her kids to know that there's more out there than just their needs.

"I think it's good for kids to learn that everything doesn't revolve around them," Caudle said. "It helps them become so that they're not self-centered. It's important for them to learn to help take care of other people."

The first step for parents who want to get their kids involved is to explain what others are going through and how they can help. Bitner said it was difficult at first for Aiden to understand that some people don't have what he has. Her son's first suggestion was that they give the homeless people their cars or build them a house.

His mother told him that they could help in other ways, such as with the "Smile Bags."

Bitner went out and bought resealable plastic bags and items that homeless people might appreciate -- snacks, water bottles, soap, shampoo, first aid kits and more. She kept Aiden a part of the process, allowing him to help pick out the items.

Now they fill bags for the homeless once a month. They put together different bags for men and women. Each 1-gallon bag includes a card decorated by Aiden, snacks, water and other essentials. Some have socks or gloves. Some have candy, which Aiden oversees -- after he's tested some of it, of course.

One of the most significant ways a parent can show a child that volunteer work is an important family value is to simply lead by example.

Caudle volunteers at Beaufort High School and at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Beaufort. She is on the board of the booster club at the school and is one of three people in charge of the school's group Proud Eagle Parents. She's also soccer mom for the varsity and junior varsity teams. At church, she is a eucharistic minister and the children's liturgy teacher. She's also on the liturgy committee and helps with the church's bazaar.

Caudle's husband, Chris, is on the parish council at the church. He might not be involved as much as his wife, but he is usually the one at home taking care of the children so she can volunteer.

Her children help out at church and at their schools, and have a number of volunteer responsibilities. Caudle also makes sure they practice acts of kindness at home as well.

Cheryl and Tom Curry of Bluffton want their children to continue to volunteer as they grow up and eventually teach their own children to do the same.

Cheryl Curry has volunteered with Special Olympics; Make-A-Wish; her husband's organization, The Curry Foundation; Palmetto Animal League and her sons' schools.

"It feels good to help somebody in need or to see an animal get a forever home," she said. "There's a lot of happiness and joy you get out of that."

Cheryl Curry said their Christian faith is another big reason they help others. People who have not volunteered don't know what they are missing, she said. She and her entire family have spent countless hours volunteering in the community.

Besides that, it's fun, 16-year-old Tommy Curry said. As the service project coordinator for the National Honor Society at Bluffton High School, his job is to find community service projects for the members to participate in, which is a requirement of being in the organization.

Tom Curry was on the board of directors for PAL until recently. He was also on the board of directors for Make-A-Wish, was in charge of fundraising for Special Olympics for the Hilton Head Island area and ran The Curry Foundation for about six years. He's had to cut back recently for business reasons.

He is motivated to help others because he feels so fortunate for what he has.

"I love helping people," he said. "There's a lot of people out there that just weren't dealt a good hand of cards in life, and it made me feel good to help out."

That's something the Currys have tried to instill in their sons.

"I don't think there's a week that goes by that I don't tell these kids how fortunate they are because they've done nothing to be where they are," Tom Curry said. "They got lucky. They got lucky that they're not sick. They got lucky that they were born into the household that they were born into. ... So I like to give back because I feel like I've been given a lot."

Follow Amy Coyne Bredeson at twitter.com/IPBG_Amy.

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