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From the time she was a toddler, it was pretty clear that Lauryn Chotiner had a philanthropic spirit. She would accompany her mother, Robyn, to a Jewish home for the elderly for brief get-togethers with the residents.
“She used to serve them little cups of grape juice,” says Robyn, adding that Lauryn still helps out at the home when asked by the director. “But that’s how it started. She liked it. Most little kids are like, ‘Old people are scary.’ And in some ways it was probably scary for Lauryn, too. But in other ways, she knew that they were so joyful to have a little child there. That was her start.”
Now 12 and a rising seventh grader at Linglestown Middle School, Lauryn has been looking for additional volunteer opportunities of her own for several years. The main hurdle, she says, has been her age.
“Organizations have age limitations for hands-on work,” she explains. So she found other ways to give back. In third grade, she donated her hair to Pantene Beautiful lengths, a company that creates free, real-hair wigs for women with cancer. She says she had liked her long hair and was nervous at first. “But it felt good, because I thought about the person who might get the wig.”
She also has supported causes she cares about by raising funds for them. For the past three years, she has baked cookies, brownies and cupcakes for Valentine’s Day gift boxes she created and sold to support American Friends of Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency medical service and blood bank.
“I decided each year to reach out to more people,” says Lauryn. “So the second year, I doubled my sales and the third year, I actually quadrupled them.” Those results are impressive, but perhaps not surprising; math is this dedicated middle schooler’s favorite subject.
Her mom, after commenting that it was a lot of baking on Lauryn’s part, acknowledges the value of that effort. “She had to pick up the phone and call people and ask if they were interested in buying the gift boxes and explain to them what the organization was,” Robyn says. “It was a good experience for her in not just the baking part, but also the need to reach out to the community and the friends we have to raise money for an organization that was important to her.”
Lauryn has also baked several times for families staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Hershey through its Come In and Bake volunteer program. It enables youth under age 18 (yes, even younger than 12) to come with a parent or guardian during a designated time on site to their kitchen to make homemade treats for families staying at the house. Volunteers not only do the baking, they also supply the ingredients; the Ronald McDonald House supplies the equipment.
Helping those with medical needs seems to be a growing interest for Lauryn. She also has worked with Caitlyn’s Smiles, an organization in Harrisburg “dedicated to sharing smiles and laughter with children facing chronic or life threatening illnesses.” It distributes arts and crafts kits to children in hospitals to provide them with fun, creative activities that they can do while in their hospital beds. Lauryn helped create and bag crafts for children.
Lauryn says that she enjoys all of her volunteer work, adding that Caitlyn’s Smiles is especially rewarding because it’s “kind of hands-on.” But now that she’s 12, she says that she’s looking forward to going to the hospitals and meeting children staying there.
Her mother is also excited for new opportunities for her daughter’s volunteering efforts. “Part of the reason she did the baking for [Magen David Adom] was because there weren’t any ways to actually physically do any,” says Robyn. “Habitat for Humanity? You have to be 12. Soup Kitchens? You have to be 12. To do anything hands-on, you have to be 12.”
In her more distant future, Lauryn sees herself volunteering regularly, and “trying to find as many volunteer opportunities as possible to learn about as many different organizations as possible.”
This summer though, she’ll continue with her current volunteer efforts. And when she spoke with us, she was getting ready for TEDxYouth@Lancaster, an afternoon of TED Talks specifically designed for students in grades six through 12. Organizers say that they have “curated tomorrow’s stars” for the event, which was slated for June 17 at the Winter Center at Milllersville University. Lauryn was the youngest of the 12 scheduled presenters. Her topic? The importance of volunteering and how just one person can make a difference.
Leslie Penkunas is the editor of Central Penn Parent.