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Nicki Lee was only a third-grader when she got a school assignment to “do something good” for her community in 2008.
Convinced she was the world’s next Beyoncé, Lee held a concert with her friends in her family’s living room and donated the approximately $1,100 they raised to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Hawaii, which offers housing for traveling families seeking medical treatment for their children.
“When you’re from Hawaii, anything that manages to get over to the mainland is such big deal, like ‘wow, you made it on the mainland!' So we’re feeling really good about this.”
Now, nearly 10 years and more than $420,000 in donations to various organizations later, Lee’s group, Kidz For a Cause (KFAC), is expanding its efforts to California with another fundraising push for the Ronald McDonald House. The timing was just right: 2017 is not only Lee’s last year before college, but also the 30th anniversary of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Hawaii.
“It felt like the stars were aligning,” Lee, now 18, told NBC News. “It seemed like the perfect time to come home, where it all began.”
Lee said she started Kidz For a Cause after realizing that she wanted to spend her life helping others. After her first benefit concert, Lee's mother took her to the Ronald McDonald House, where she met some of the families the proceeds would be going toward. Knowing that she had made a difference inspired Lee to continue serving after the end of her assignment.
In 2011, she held a second concert. Operating as KFAC and boasting a “board of directors” comprised of Lee’s sixth-grade friends, the group recruited 50 kids from the island of Oahu to organize a talent show.
Between ticket sales and sponsorships, Lee said they netted more than $10,000 for the American Heart Association’s various children’s programs.
Each fundraiser brought in more participants and raised more money. In 2015, nearly 200 kids orchestrated a talent show for an audience of 2,000, and performances were judged by a panel of entertainment professionals.
Lee said that, by the end of the show, KFAC had raised $108,000 for the Friends of the Children’s Justice Center of Oahu, a nonprofit that cares for child witnesses of violent crimes and victims of child abuse.
While KFAC functions similarly to a nonprofit, the group does not make donations directly. Instead, it has donors write checks to the nonprofits they’re fundraising for.
Lee said the driving force behind KFAC’s momentum is what makes the organization stand apart from other philanthropic institutions: It’s run entirely by kids.
“When kids motivate other kids, it’s not like a teacher or parent telling them to do something, and it’s not like a homework assignment. It becomes something that seems fun and cooler,” Lee said. “A lot of kids look at community service as a boring project they have to do for a grade, which isn’t necessarily how community service should be looked at.”
As membership increased and KFAC established two boards of directors — one run by high school students, the other, a junior board for elementary and middle schoolers — Lee began brainstorming ways to earn money for charities beyond talent shows.
The idea of a concert had come from her love of performing. Maybe, Lee thought, other kids could use their own hobbies and interests to give back.
In 2016, KFAC launched "ThinkTank," a campaign that encouraged kids from Oahu and neighboring islands to create their own “FUNraisers” and donate the proceeds to the Kapiolani Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
Students hosted everything from soccer clinics to bake sales and art exhibits. KFAC Board Member Emily Kim, who harbored a love for filmmaking after taking a class in eighth grade, worked with other kids to host a film festival at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The students sold tickets to friends and families and used social media to their advantage to get the word out.
“It was a good turnout,” Kim, 17, said. "I’m excited to be a part of this not only because I’m helping my community, but because I feel like I’m gaining leadership and real-life skills that I can use later on in life.”
Lee said the ThinkTank campaign raised more than $300,500 for Kapiolani’s NICU from May to November.
Successful in Hawaii, Lee said she wanted KFAC to continue growing. She set her eyes on California, the closest and easiest place to expand, she said.
Earlier this month, KFAC kicked off its mainland recruitment efforts in Southern California, inviting kids to host their own fundraisers for the Ronald McDonald House Charities in Orange County. It was the first step of what Lee hopes will be a nationwide call to service for young people.
“When you’re from Hawaii, anything that manages to get over to the mainland is such big deal, like ‘wow, you made it on the mainland!’ Lee said. “So we’re feeling really good about this.”
“I am so proud and excited that RMHC-Hawaii is part of this amazing journey,” Jerri Chong, president of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Hawaii, said in the organization’s quarterly newsletter. “What really inspires me is how a little girl’s first visit to the ‘House That Love Built’ could have such a profound and lasting effect on her, and ultimately, make a real difference for thousands of people in need.”
Families in Southern California are already feeling an impact. Delanie Loera — a single mother of three from Palm Springs — has been staying at the Ronald McDonald House on and off for almost six years while her 5-year-old son Asher receives treatment and undergoes surgeries for spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal cord does not develop properly.
"For me, it’s exciting that he’s so excited about something involving the Ronald McDonald House that has nothing to do with his condition.”
Last month, the Loera family met Lee and learned about KFAC’s mission.
“While we were driving home, Kidz For a Cause was all Asher could talk about,” Loera said. “He already has a bunch of fundraiser ideas he’s thought up in his head. For me, it’s exciting that he’s so excited about something involving the Ronald McDonald House that has nothing to do with his condition.”
Lee is looking forward to her last major campaign with KFAC before she heads off to college. While she does not yet know what school she'll be attending, she hopes to major in business.
“I’ll be taking a step back to allow the next wave of leaders to take over,” Lee said. “But I’ll always be involved with Kidz For a Cause — it’s like my baby. And I want to continue to ignite kids the way the Ronald McDonald House ignited me.”