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Building connections through generosity

By Jeremy Freeman

4-H clover sign: "Community Service Project Marfa 4-H Club"

One of the things that the past year of quarantine life and pandemic fatigue has shown us is how much we need to learn to appreciate the mundane. It is the simple things that can carry us forward, such as a card in the mail, a surprise phone call, or a random act of kindness. Facilitating moments of generosity can play a pivotal role in the field of youth development.

Cultures around the world uphold the value of generosity and many religious traditions speak of the process of giving as being mutually beneficial. Now there is research to support these ancient instructive words. Research done in the past year found participants who helped others more often reported higher positive emotions, lower negative emotions, and more satisfaction with their relationships. In her book, The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky writes, “Being kind and generous leads you to perceive others more positively and more charitably,” and this “fosters a heightened sense of interdependence and cooperation in your social community.” There are clear, research based links between generosity and fostering a sense of interconnectedness.

The Minnesota 4-H program has provided many ways for youth to extend generosity to others over the past year. Local counties have created avenues for youth to engage in service and statewide regions are now collecting winter clothing as part of the Head, Hands and Toes Winter Gear Drive. These opportunities address community needs, but more importantly, they can create threads of relationships that will last long after the last pair of boots is distributed.

There was a time when gifting was a common practice as neighbors and small communities lived and thrived together. For many today, it is more likely that they share greater threads of exchange with their delivery truck driver than with the neighbors next door. In facilitating environments for young people to experience generosity, we are opening their world and expanding their possibilities by helping them form relationships with those outside of their established social order. We are also laying the seeds for other positive traits to emerge.

During these difficult times, how can youth development work play a pivotal role in building connections across our communities to demonstrate genuine care and compassion? How are acts of service, kindness and generosity key to youth development? I’d love to hear your stories. What challenges or opportunities do you see ahead?

As our neighborhoods and cities wrestle with issues of social justice, equality, and pandemic fear, we need small acts of kindness just as much as we need large institutional change. When we unveil the commonness of each other's humanity through simple gifts and generosity, we may awaken a care and connection that was never truly gone, but only slumbering.

-- Jeremy Freeman, Extension educator

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  1. Jeremy, you have named something so important here--that generosity through reaching out to others is one of the best ways to reduce the sense of social isolation. I am so happy you brought this up. One of my favorite models of youth development is the Circle of Courage (by Martin Brokenleg and Larry Brendtro), which names generosity as one of the foundations for young people, along with independence, belonging, and mastery. I have seen this one as perhaps the most powerful element for building up young people's hearts and sense of their own value because they can contribute, they can make a difference for others. And our hurting world needs them so very much right now.

    1. Kathryn, I enjoyed reading more about the Circle of Courage model and was amazed at how closely it paralleled 4-H values.

      How have you seen youth programs cultivate generosity out of the heart as opposed to just giving youth an experience they remain disconnected from?

      One of the things I am struck by is the ways generosity builds connections and deepens relationships, or can be a tool to break down barriers between peoples or groups.

      How can youth programs generate authentic experiences for this type of work?

  2. This is fabulous. I recommend watching/reading “The Kindness Diaries” by Leon Logothetis. He travels with no money, relying on the kindness of strangers. It is all about that human connection. (He also has a “Go Be Kind” journel that helps promote ways to be kind and make you feel happier.) It is such a spot on way to get people engaged with real time/real emotion/real life. Things are hard right now. Kids are dealing with an ever fluid school schedule, covid restrictions, and not being able to see as many friends as before...these possible projects/tasks/ journeys can spread some joy and they can reap the benefits! So many are feeling isolated and need to connect. There are many ways to be actively engaged , and kids are very adept on creating ways to connect. Making snowmen outside nursing homes for the residents to see, pen pals with senior citizens or even mailing their friends a card of encouragement! Pay it forward and buy the person behind you in the drive through their food, send a letter or an email to a teacher that encouraged you, compliment a stranger, volunteer for a local business, sweep the storefront for a local business, bake cookies for the neighbors!
    Hoping kids and programming with more empathy and generosity creates a more empathetic and generous society. Great article Jeremy!
    -Michelle Dietz

    1. Hi Michelle, thanks for sharing so many great ways youth can connect and serve together. I especially appreciate how you noted that the youth themselves are adept at creating ways to connect. Youth tend to be far more engaged when their own ideas can spark creative change versus adults providing an environment or solution.

      These are incredibly challenging times for our young people and I agree with you that we need to continue to strive to create these opportunities and environments for young people. If we place more emphasis on empathy and generosity alongside of our programming we will, as you say create a more empathetic and generous society.


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