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A growing experience

At some moment during this holiday season, you may sense that the message of conspicuous consumption is drowning out the spirit of Christmas.

In fact, you may fear that your children are self-absorbed, materialistic, and captives of the virtual world.

Raising charitable, generous kids today is a challenge. But it may be easier in rural areas where the tradition of community service still thrives.

I'd like to share one shining example that led to healthier local food and, at the same time, reached across the globe to help farmers help themselves.

In 2009, Conrad, Iowa, farmer Arlyn Schipper, a director of the national Foods Resource Bank (FRB), asked his friend, Don Linnenbrink, to involve youth in an FRB growing project.

Arlyn's son, Brent, made available 1 acre on the edge of town where the kids could grow a garden. They would donate the proceeds of their produce to farmers in developing countries.

Linnenbrink, a Sunday school teacher at First Presbyterian Church in Conrad, decided to try it. "I wasn't sure if they'd go for it," he says. "But when we went to the plot, one kid jabbed a stick into the ground and said, 'This one is mine.' "

The kids grew green beans, radishes, zucchini, tomatoes, onions, yellow squash, pumpkins, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, and lots of sweet corn.

They sold produce at the farmers' market in Conrad and the local grocer, Hometown Foods. Proceeds were sent to the Republic of the Congo.

"The kids worked hard, and it was a win-win effort," says Chris Scott, manager of the Conrad Hometown Foods.

Last summer, the United Methodist Sunday school class joined the project, bringing the total to 21 kids. They grew enough to supply Hometown Foods stores in four other towns.

With one year of experience under their belts, they fine-tuned their plantings. "The first year, they had too much zucchini," Scott says.

The kids sold produce after church and tucked order forms into church bulletins. "Anything to get the word out," Linnenbrink says.

The nine churches involved in Conrad's A-maize-ing Grace FRB project held a community sweet corn picnic, and the kids sold fresh sweet corn there.

In August, the Grundy National Bank invited the kids to sell at its Taste of Iowa event showcasing Iowa vendors with a barbecue and cook-off. The school served an all-Iowa meal using their produce.

Last summer, the kids raised $5,000 from their growing project.

Only two of the kids live on a farm. "Many had never planted anything in their lives," Linnenbrink says. "So it was truly a growing experience."

The kids plan to visit Sunday schools at other churches and invite these youth to start their own growing projects.

Sounds terrific, doesn't it? But what about all the weeding? "I hated pulling weeds," Jay Borgman admits. The kids' moms helped Linnenbrink schedule work sessions and provided refreshments.
"We worked for a half hour to an hour at a time," he says. "I tried to make it social."

Kids don't spontaneously grow into compassionate adults. Based on my experience as a mom and 4-H leader, they don't naturally prefer to spend time doing service projects. But once kids are involved, they often get into it.

Parents and other caring adults need to nudge them at a young age to experience the kind of giving that focuses on others -- and not what the giver gets in return. The Conrad kids are lucky to have role models who make an effort to open their eyes to the aching needs in this world.

Other ways to raise awareness come packaged in all sizes and shapes. Helping kids focus on activities that instill compassion and charity truly is a gift that keeps giving.

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