For his eighth birthday this fall, Robbie Blackwell of Indianapolis is planning a big bash with a SpongeBob SquarePantsTM theme. If Robbie’s past birthdays are any indication, he’ll be celebrating with upwards of 100 guests—which could add up to a lot of presents. But the gifts won’t be the usual assortment of toys, games, or gift cards to the local video-game store. Instead, Robbie welcomes gifts of school supplies, backpacks, educational materials, and cash donations for School on Wheels, a local organization that provides one-on-one tutoring and educational advocacy for children affected by homelessness.
The donation-themed parties started years ago with Robbie’s very first birthday. Back then, of course, the impetus came from his parents, Stephanie and Rob Blackwell. Like most proud parents, they wanted to mark the special day by inviting over all their friends and relatives—but they also wanted to use the occasion to help a cause that was bigger than themselves. “School on Wheels is something that spoke to us, because we realize that making sure kids have the foundation of a good education opens doors that might otherwise appear to be closed,” Stephanie explains.
The guests responded enthusiastically, and Robbie’s birthday benefit party became a tradition. After a couple of years, Robbie—having seen a picture of kids who participate in School on Wheels and asked his mom about it—quickly grasped the significance of all those backpacks, notebooks, and other gifts, and he eagerly took the reigns from his parents. “I thought that if everybody did something like this, the world would just turn into a better place to live,” he explains.
By three, Robbie was already playing an active role in planning the parties. “This has become his,” Stephanie explains. “It really empowers his friends, too, and as they’re getting a little older, we see how they emotionally check into the process and the cause. We have friends all the way from preschool up to St. Richard’s Episcopal School, where Robbie’s now going into second grade, and it’s fantastic to have these reunions every year. At the end of the day, they’ve not only had a good time enjoying each other’s company, but they feel good about what they’ve done.”
For the parents, she adds, “It becomes a valuable insight into the abilities these kids have to affect a difference on such a grand scale at such a young age.”
A Contagious Effect
Since then, news of the parties’ success has reached the community, and now, as Robbie has enthusiastically jumped feet first into other projects, it’s no wonder people are eager to join him in his efforts. For starters, Kim Borges, vice president and area marketing manager for Regions, noticed a story about Robbie on the School on Wheels website and got the bank involved. “I was so moved,” Kim relates. “Robbie has a philanthropic attitude of, ‘Anyone can make an impact.’ And I thought, we need to do something for this young man to show him that what he’s doing is meaningful.”
Kim found out that Robbie loves Legos®, basketball, and baseball, and she had a goodie bag of Lego-themed gifts delivered to him—along with an invitation to throw out the first pitch at an Indianapolis Indians game on sponsor night. The team at Regions also helped Robbie celebrate his seventh birthday, delivering 80 personalized birthday cards made by associates statewide as well as their children, grandchildren, and friends. And the bank has continued to make contributions to School on Wheels in Robbie’s honor. “It’s been really inspiring to be a part of this,” says Kim, who personally attended Robbie’s birthday party last year. “While Robbie is a typical seven-year-old in many respects, you can ask him a question about his philanthropic efforts, and his answers are so deep and insightful. You have to have a tender heart to be that thoughtful and selfless and think about other people ahead of yourself. I’m excited to think about what’s in store for him in the future.”
Wanting to Do More
Feeling empowered by the response to the School on Wheels drive, Robbie has since taken up the cause of helping to boost morale for the patients at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. Years ago, the Blackwells had met Dr. Chuck Dietzen, who is the medical director for pediatric rehabilitation at the hospital. Now, Robbie has also bonded with “Dr. Chuck”—who made Robbie the official Superhero Ambassador for his pediatric rehabilitation patients (and plans to eventually nominate Robbie as the youngest board member for Timmy Global Health, the organization he founded in 1997 to expand access to healthcare in underserved communities around the world).
Just as collecting supplies for School on Wheels helped Robbie understand the ways that homelessness impacts children, through Chuck, he has now gained special empathy for children facing health challenges in the hospital. He’s even personally spent time with patients in the unit, though he’d never met them before. “They’re normal kids,” Robbie explains. “There’s nothing different about them—just that they have special needs, but everybody has special needs, just like we all need food, and water, and parents like my mom and dad.”
Those connections prompted Robbie to launch more giving campaigns, this time for the kids at Riley. He started another annual event, an Easter egg hunt that has now grown to about 60 participants. The guests arrive with chocolate bunnies to donate as well as toys that can be used in respiratory therapy, such as musical instruments, bubbles, and pinwheels. Before the egg hunt begins, they also have an opportunity to create handmade cards for the children. “The kids just write a note of cheer or draw a picture…something that would make them happy if they were in the hospital,” Stephanie explains. “They want the patients to realize how many people are thinking of them over the Easter holiday.”
Finally, guessing correctly that many of the kids at the hospital love Legos just like he does, Robbie and his family contacted the executive director of Brickworld®, an Indianopolis-based company that puts on elaborate Lego expositions around the country, and asked for donations for the unit. Brickworld gave the hospital $2,500 worth of Legos last Christmas and plans to make it an annual contribution.
“It’s been amazing to watch the power children have to get things done,” Stephanie says, noting that other families have contacted them for advice about helping their own kids participate in fundraising efforts. “We now have three- and four-year-old philanthropists who are inspired by Robbie’s lead.”
Stephanie adds that as far as she and her husband are concerned, their primary contribution to Robbie’s work was simply planting the seed with his first birthday party. “After involving Robbie and his friends in the process of helping others early,” she says, “we saw that innate empathy. You get children who are seeing other children’s circumstances and not waiting for somebody else to do something about it. All these little tiny dots of support or random acts of kindness have this cumulative effect that is just a beautiful thing to watch.”
Adds Robbie, “You don’t have to be big to make a big difference.”
Stephanie and Rob Blackwell are customers of Regions.