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Every year, just before Thanksgiving, piano teacher Kathy Simpson kicks off one of her all-time favorite holiday traditions. She stops by the ChildFund international office near her home in Richmond, Virginia, to pick up about 60 copies of our Real Gifts Catalog.
Kathy and one of her piano students.
Why so many? Well, piano isn’t the only thing she wants to teach her students. “When you’re young, if you learn the beauty and joy of generosity and gratitude – all kinds of wonderful things that make us a good human being – then you have them for a lifetime,” she says.
Kathy has always had a passion for two things: teaching and music. She grew up in western Maryland, studied piano and education in college, and spent 20 years as a music pastor in Raleigh, North Carolina, before switching to teaching piano full-time and eventually moving to Richmond.
She first discovered ChildFund when her own children were still young – in the 1980s, when ChildFund was still Christian Children’s Fund. The family chose to sponsor a child together, Elvin. “It was a wonderful connection for my kids,” Kathy remembers. “During the holidays, we would always talk about Elvin and think of him as being like our little brother.”
It was such a positive experience for her children that she decided she’d continue her giving journey with ChildFund even after the sponsorship ended – in a new way.
Every year for the past 30 years has been the same: Kathy distributes the gift catalogs to each of her piano students and their families, inviting them to donate what they can. Then comes the best part: the annual Christmas party.
“Piano can be a lonely instrument for many reasons,” Kathy explains. “When I started the Christmas party tradition, I wanted my piano kids to have a situation where they could have some social interaction. When you perform, it’s much easier to do if you’re playing for friends. I use my Christmas party to connect kids.”
The Real Gifts Catalog is part of how she connects them. Once the students arrive at the party, they leave their family’s donations in a large bowl. The high school students count the money, and then the children are divided up by grade. Each grade gets to nominate a gift catalog item they feel is most important to spend the money on – whether clean water, farm animals, mosquito nets or another tangible item that will help a child somewhere else in the world.
“Each grade has a high school coach,” Kathy says. “And they get to argue it out: What one item is their grade is going to nominate?
“I love walking around as the kids get older. You know, they’re really thinking. They’re saying things like, ‘Well, water would be better than a goat, because you need water to live.’ But then another person is saying, ‘Well, a goat would give them milk.’ Those are the discussions that have been really, really fun to see. In my heart of hearts as a teacher, I love that this is going on in kids’ heads. They’re thinking outside of themselves and they’re connecting with others, which I think is the core of humanity.”
Before the night ends, all the children and teens come together with a whiteboard to decide how the money will ultimately be used. It’s an opportunity for them to connect not just with those who may be less fortunate, but with each other.
Children at Kathy’s annual Christmas party work with their high school “coaches” to choose their gift catalog items.
Kathy will never forget the time that one of her students, who had just moved to the U.S. from India, opened up to her classmates for the first time because of the Christmas party.
“She was very quiet and not getting really involved in the group until she came to the party, and we did this exercise,” Kathy remembers. “There was a gift catalog item we were pretty sure was going to India. The look on that child’s face when she saw we were choosing India and sending money to India was priceless. It was a defining moment for her to connect with our group.”
Each year after the party is over, sometime in January, Kathy puts together a card that says, “Look what we did! I’m so proud of you.” The card informs families of what their donations were able to send to children in different parts of the world. It’s something the students and their families can reflect back on and feel good about all year long.
We asked Kathy to share with us from her perspective as a teacher why childhood is so important.
“It truly shapes you for life,” she answered. “The generosity lessons, the gratitude lessons – they shape your perspective. And what ChildFund does is a wonderful tool for parents, teachers and anyone who is around children to fan that flame. I think the kid who’s doing this at age 7 very well may still be doing it at 57.
“That’s how I feel about music too. I’ve always said, it’s not my job to teach kids to be musicians. It’s my job to convince them that they are musicians. In the same way, this isn’t about teaching them to be generous or grateful. It’s about convincing kids that they are generous, that they are grateful.”
Are you as inspired as we are? Donate online to ChildFund’s Real Gifts Catalog and share the joy of giving this holiday season by telling your family, friends and especially the children in your life what a difference it makes.