When I was very young I was invited to participate in a Davidson Young Scholar conference at Lake Tahoe. There were about 20 Davidson Young Scholars and their families at the event. We stayed in a hotel up in Tahoe. I remember the sign as we entered the hotel building, “Don’t leave the doors open. Bears will enter.” That was pretty shocking to a five year old from Boston. I also remember the wonderful feeling of piloting Bob Davidson’s boat on Lake Tahoe as he stood behind me. I tend to overheat very easily, and I even remember how the counselors took care of me after I vomited all over the activity tent. But, mostly I remember the words that I took to heart. Jan Davidson told me that she believed that anyone who had the ability to help another person had the responsibility to help them. I left feeling, no, believing that it was my responsibility to help others.
My first opportunity arose when I was six. We had just purchased our first minivan, only to find that my great grandmother who lived with my family couldn’t get into it. The step up was too high. We tried conventional step stools, but this left her feeling dependent, since we had to place the footstool and then pick it up after she got in. I thought it might be a good idea to make a step stool with a handle attached. That way she could hold onto the handle for balance and then use the handle to pull the stepstool up into the minivan with her. So began my first invention, the Great Granny Booster Step. I never set out to invent something. I only noticed a need and tried to brainstorm how to remedy the situation. Soon after, I learned that NSTA Craftsman was having an invention competition about inventing new tools. I entered the Great Granny Booster Step, and it won first place. We were invited to Chicago, and the whole family headed out, this time in the minivan. I had many amazing experiences in Chicago. It gave me the opportunity to meet other kid inventors. Then, Great Grams, as I called her, was interviewed about how she felt about my building the step for her.
Something else important happened on that trip to Chicago. At one point my family got lost on Lower Wacker Drive. It seems there is a whole system of roads that runs right under downtown Chicago’s Million Dollar Mile. So, right under where the weathiest people are shopping, there is a completely different world. That’s where I first saw many homeless people, mostly sleeping in garbage bags. We spent a long time under there, driving in circles, actually ending up in the underground police car impound lot. I know that by the time we emerged from that underground world my perspectives on many things had changed. I was particularly struck with the irony of these people living right below the wealthiest shopping district. There were two parallel worlds, co-existing: one on street level and one 30 feet below street level. I recall, at the invention awards ceremony, telling Bob Villa that I knew it was my responsibility to invent something to help those homeless people.
Now, what doesn’t work for me is to sit down and think, “What can I invent to help those people?” Many people have asked me what it takes to be a kid inventor. I’ve thought about that and decided that what it takes is being very observant. A person has to notice what is happening around him, and notice what people really need. But then, one needs to tuck that information in the back of one’s mind, and keep it there until the right moment when you see a solution to that need that could make a difference in someone’s life. In Chicago, I filed away in my mind the needs I saw among those homeless people.
A few years later, I noticed an invention contest sponsored by Intel and ByKidsForKids. It was a challenge to use recycled materials to help people. Suddenly, I remembered those people underground in Chicago. I decided to think of a way to use recycled materials to help the homeless. Knowing that stryofoam is almost impossible to break down or recycle, and that Styrofoam is a great insulating material, I decided to try to construct a shelter using Styrofoam peanuts from packing materials. The result was the Home Dome. The Home Dome won first place nationally.
Several months later, I was invited by some senators to Washington D.C. to display the Home Dome in the Russell Senate Office Building. There were also victims of Hurricane Katrina there who said that the Home Dome was superior to some of the shelters that they had to live in.
I believe it is everyone’s responsibility to reach out and make a difference. It doesn’t have to be a huge, earth-changing event. Microphilanthopy is the source of many wonderful advances. All you have to do is just some, one, little thing to improve the life of someone else. No one is too young, too old, or too disadvantaged to make a difference in the world. Once you do this a few times, you will become addicted to the feeling of euphoria that comes with knowing you made a difference.
How do you give? Do you encourage your children to give?
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