By Laura Allenbaugh, Producer, NBC News
BROAD CHANNEL, New York -- Third-grader Rachel Ward spent her 8th birthday wrapping a special gift -- but it wasn't for herself. The party hats she picked out were for a little boy from another school who she'll probably never meet.
"It's funner to give a gift...and if you do it a lot, you can get a good feeling" she said.
As a student at PS 47 in Broad Channel, Queens, a town that was hard-hit by Superstorm Sandy, Rachel knows what it’s like to see her community struggle. They received help in the months following the storm from the nonprofit Family-to-Family, which contacted the town to ask what was needed.
Then, as the town got back on its feet, they wanted to give back.
Family-to-Family currently has 24 different programs connecting families with those in need. To get involved, visit http://www.family-to-family.org/
Resident Alison Kase, who volunteers with Family-to-Family, saw the organization as an opportunity to teach a lesson to her two sons and their classmates at PS 47.
"They have been on the receiving end of such wonderful kindnesses," said Kase. "But we felt that it was very important to teach what we call 'living empathy,' to live through the moment of that exchange of receiving and then to give and to pay it forward."
The children are showing their appreciation by buying birthday supplies and packing them up for kids they don't even know. It may seem like a small gesture, but it's those little acts of kindness that can make a big difference.
The idea behind the Family-to-Family programs is to create personal connections, explained Program Director Nancy Hennessee. Volunteers for the "One Book at a Time" program, for example, are matched with a child. They send them one book a month and letters between the child and volunteer are encouraged.
"Sponsor a Family" is their most popular program. Families give a monthly food donation to impoverished families, who often run out of food stamps before the end of the month. Families are paired up across the US. In Maple Grove, Minn., one family is sponsoring another in Kermit, W.V. A family in New Mexico receives a box of food each month from Philadelphia.
The sponsoring families will often shop together for supplies, box them up and send them with a note to the family they're sponsoring. Hennessee says that concrete, hands-on action of packing a box or writing a family to ask what they need creates a sense of empathy that writing a check cannot.
While running through the party store in Broad Channel, Rachel and her classmates didn't know who they were buying birthday decorations for, but they were told one child was a basketball fan. When the kids had gathered all their supplies, there wasn't a basketball-themed item left on the shelf.
"It's just heartwarming," said their principal Ann Moynagh. "You know, that's who they are, so I already knew how they were going to respond, but just to see it in action and the joy that they have in giving back to others...it's just heartwarming."