It’s hard to believe Chase Hansen is only 10 years old. When you ask him a question, he looks you directly in the eye and confidently answers questions. He’s only in Primary, but he seems significantly older when it comes to communication skills—skills he has developed in an unlikely place, sitting across the table from a homeless person.
Three years ago, Chase and his father, John, began what they now call “Project Empathy.” The concept is simple: “Project Empathy is a one-on-one sit-down meal between a homeless person and a non-homeless person. And they basically sit and talk over the course of a meal for 30 minutes to an hour. And during that time frame, the person sits down and makes a meaningful connection over a meal.”
Sure, you could go volunteer with a large group at a homeless shelter or pass out sandwiches in the park, but Chase says that in big group service project situations, those providing the service often “don’t get to experience the homeless person’s gratitude. They don’t get to see the person. They don’t get to create a connection.”
And when the purpose becomes a connection rather than a check mark of service, the takeaways change significantly, John says.
“It doesn’t become a journey that you have an expectation about,” he explains. “It becomes something that you explore. . . . The individuals that we meet have dreams and aspirations, they have dream jobs and [favorite] superhero characters. They love ice cream. They miss their mom [and] their kids, they have grandkids that they’ve never seen.”
John has come to view his son as a mission companion in this project, and together they go about looking for opportunities help others recognize their worth. He explains that sometimes this simply requires admitting our feelings of inadequacy.
“How do you minister?” he asks. “How do I share space with another human? How do you look over at them and say, ‘I’m endowed with [the ability to love] you, brother, I just don’t . . . know how.’”
John and Chase believe what Sister Sharon Eubank told students at Brigham Young University in 2018 when she said, “You yourself are the gift. It isn’t the clothing, the hygiene kits, the school desks, the wells. It’s you. . . . If we change our perspective so that caring for the poor and needy is less about giving away stuff and more about filling the hunger for human contact and about hearing meaningful conversation and creating rich and positive relationships, then the Lord can send us someplace.”
But Chase and his father aren’t the only ones striving to live Sister Eubank’s council. In fact, Chase Hansen is just one of many kids profiled in the new book Unselfish Kids, written by father-daughter duo Paul and Sammie Parkinson—Latter-day Saints who are on a mission to encourage others to, like Chase and John, turn outward and give of one’s self.
Finding the Unselfish
In May 2017, Sammie was a student at UVU when she started to wonder if school just wasn’t her thing. She had done some humanitarian trips and realized she “had never felt that genuinely happy.”
“She . . . was just kind of depressed,” her father, Paul, recalls. “She was kind of in a funk. She had just come back from Fiji and was like, ‘Do I go back to school? I am taking all these general classes, but I feel like I am not advancing.’ She was kind of there to be there because ‘This is what you do.’”
Paul had previously written a book called Unselfish, which highlighted 99 stories of people who, in a selfie culture, “turned the camera around and looked beyond themselves.” Going off this idea, he made a deal with his daughter to help her get out of her funk. “Why don’t you help me write a second book?” he remembers asking. Sammie agreed, and they set a goal of gathering the stories of 40 kids.
The first unselfish child Sammie found was a 10-year-old girl named Ella Tryon whose non-profit, Help Me Color a Rainbow, donates crayons to hospitals.
“I got off the phone . . . and I just sobbed because I could not believe that a child . . . would be that selfless and that good,” Sammie says. She called her dad and said, “This is what I want to do.”
Ella’s story kept Sammie going through what actually proved to be a tougher task than anticipated. She knew people needed to hear these stories, but the fact that they weren’t being told made gathering them difficult.
As it turns out, there is no secret method to finding the kind of stories the Parkinsons were looking for, so Sammie used Google . . . a lot. The stories came slowly. For a little girl named Juliana, hearing her mom tell her own story of being a young girl in a motorcycle crash and how it was a first responder bringing her a stuffed animal made a deep and lasting impression on Juliana. As she listened to the story, she wondered if she could do the same thing for other children. She has now collected over 17,000 stuffed animals to give to first responders. And Chloe Thompson and her grandmother sew handbags for the homeless together. As she started finding stories, Sammie began noticed a few common trends among the kids that she interviewed: 1) Unselfishness is often sparked by a single question or observation. For Chase Hansen, it was noticing the homeless people in a local mall. 2) These children frequently have a supportive adult in their life who encourages them in their efforts to serve others. Many times this is a parent, but it doesn’t have to be. 3) Having money is not a requirement to be unselfish. In most cases, the families of the kids Sammie interviewed were not wealthy, and their homes were modest.
Paul agrees with his daughter’s findings and recognizes that many of us as adults say, “Oh, when I have money and time, then I’m going to start serving,” but these kids don’t let those hesitations stop them.
Lucy’s Stitched Hugs
Latter-day Saint Lucy Crouse is a perfect example of this. A young woman who has autism, Lucy began serving others after she got excited about sewing while watching her mother and grandmother sew humanitarian quilts. Lucy sold pies to family and friends at Thanksgiving to be able to buy supplies for the sewing projects she wanted to make for others. She has now donated 600 items—typically quilts or stuffed toys—to people in her community. She calls the things she sews “Lucy’s Stitched Hugs.”
“I think it’s a little more meaningful for kids if it’s someplace near them,” Lucy’s mom, Holly, says. “[Lucy] doesn’t typically get to meet the people that receive her items, but I think knowing that it’s going to people in our community . . . that for her is a little more meaningful too.”
Supporting a family that includes two daughters with autism on a librarian’s income often means Lucy’s service requires sacrifices, such as earning her own money for supplies—including selling many of her beloved Legos, Holly says.
Holly emphasizes that the unselfishness, the kindness, kids have can be something as simple as being accepting and loving toward those with special needs. That kindness, she believes, often begins with what is being modeled at home.
“Both our daughters only attend sacrament meeting and no other meetings,” Holly says. “Not because they don't want to have time with others or because they don't have testimonies [but] because, unfortunately, the norm is not the heartwarming occasional story you read about acceptance and inclusion. If you want your children to be accepting and kind to others it has to begin with you.”
Lucy uses the word “wonderful” to describe how she feels about being able to serve others. She says she “can’t think of a word that describes it better,” but she doesn’t want attention. In fact, when a local dentist office wanted to honor her, she was concerned that it made what she was doing less of a good deed. She only agreed when her parents explained that she might be able to help other kids recognize the service they’re capable of.
“Lucy says she sews a piece of her heart into everything she makes and that she is happiest when she is doing something for someone else,” Holly writes in Unselfish Kids. “She hopes her gifts of kindness make others feel loved.”
The 40th Story
As the Parkinsons approach their goal of 40 stories, the 40th story seemed to become elusive. They would think they were there and then getting a particular story wouldn’t work out, bringing them back to 39. But while on an anniversary trip Rebecca in McGregor, Texas, Paul learned of a boy named Rhett Hering, the mayor’s son. At just 15-years-old, Rhett’s life was taken in an ATV accident in front of his parents’ home, long before Paul and his wife ever traveled to McKinney and yet, after sending a "cold call" email of sorts asking if they could attend his parents' church with them during their visit, they learned that Rhett was one of these unselfish kids and his impact was still being felt in his small town. Whether it was giving beef jerky from his Christmas stocking to a homeless man or befriending new kids at school, Rhett had a gift for making others feel important and loved. Through acts of service that may not have seemed remarkable in the moment, Rhett’s example of going about doing good through acts of Christlike service left an indelible impression on the hearts of those who knew him. In Rhett’s obituary, his parents wrote these words, “In honor of Rhett, give away your best to others—love, kindness, joy, and grace. This is the legacy of Rhett Hering.”
In his honor, The Rhett Revolution was founded, a nonprofit organization that seeks to spread a message of kindness in Rhett’s honor. It began with creating college scholarships for kids in his hometown but has since expanded to offer assistance to bereaved families and to support a community food pantry.
It was the perfect story to close the book, because while academic accolades or athletic prowess tend to be forgotten in the weeks and months after a spirit child leaves this life, unselfishness has the ability to live on as it is paid forward.
With a little digging, Paul and Sammie found many stories of kids like Lucy and Chase who love others and are already making a positive difference in the world despite their young ages. Paul says the goal of the Unselfish Kids is to give parents a tool to inspire their children. There is even a space in the book for children to record their own ideas and plans for acting unselfishly.
“You look at the amount money and time we spend on our kids in sports and how many thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars on music . . . our message [with using the book] has been, “Here’s a tool like a soccer ball or a pair of cleats or a musical instrument,” Paul says, explaining that he hopes the book can serve as a vehicle to facilitate conversation and then generate ideas for how they too can serve others.
Like Holly Crouse, Paul emphasizes that parents have to let their children know that caring for others is a gift that is highly valued. In fact, there is plenty of evidence for this in recent news.
Last year, a high school valedictorian named Kyle Martin gave a graduation speech that went viral when he acknowledged that he regretted focusing so heavily on academic achievements rather than relationships with those around him.
In 2014, a Harvard Graduate School of Education project called “Making Caring Common” surveyed 10,000 middle and high school students and found that 80 percent believed their parents “are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.” The same was true of teachers.
In hopes of avoiding this in his home, Paul and his wife, Rebecca, have begun asking their kids different questions when they come home. Rather than, “Did you practice your piano?” or “How did you do on your test?” They ask, “Were you kind to someone today?” or “Did you make a new friend today?” This communicates to children what is valued.
Chase and Lucy are just two examples of what having the support and example of an adult can do for a child’s desire to serve. The Parkinsons have seen proof of this concept over and over again and hope that the messages of the children in the book will continue fostering these relationships of love and kindness for people everywhere.
Lead Image: Courtesy of John and Chase Hansen.
40 short stories of children making the world a better place. The second book in the top selling Unselfish series, Unselfish Kids contains 40 short stories and full color photos of children who are making a difference in the world. Unselfish Kids reminds us that we all have a part to play. When we use our different talents and abilities to help others, amazing things happen, as you’ll see from the children in Unselfish Kids. Available now at DeseretBook.com.