‘I can do it!’ VolunTOTS empowers little kids to do good in Pittsburgh communities
Photo: VolunTOTS working at Millvale Community Garden.
Cami Teacoach remembers volunteering at age 3 at church luncheons for seniors in Cleveland, where she helped to clean the tables between meals and fill the sugar bowls. Her mother wanted to teach her the value of giving to others.
So when Cami’s son, Bennett, turned 3, she looked for opportunities in Pittsburgh to teach him the same lessons.
“Nothing existed,” says Cami, who lives in Marshall with her husband Jon and two small sons, “and if there were opportunities, people would say, ‘How old is he?’ and when I’d say 3, their faces would get this look of horror. I get what they’re thinking: 3-year-olds are a lot. But they also have helpfulness and an early independence that we try to harness for good. My 3-year-old really wants to help. His favorite phrase is, ‘I can do it.’ ”
In February, Teacoach started VolunTOTS of Pittsburgh, which has 1,100 members on its Facebook page so far and is working to obtain its 501(c)3 nonprofit designation. A website is in the future. Each month, the group organizes activities for young kids to learn the joys of volunteering. Her friend, Jess Mey, came up with the organization’s name.
“I said to my husband, ‘I think I want to start a club for volunteering,’ and he thought I meant with my friends,” she says. “We got 500 people to join in one weekend. It’s mostly mothers. I would love some more dads to join.”
Cami, who has a master’s degree in social work and public health from the University of Pittsburgh, stopped working outside the home when her first son was born. A social worker’s wages didn’t cover the cost of child care to make it worthwhile. The couple’s second son is 15 months old.
“VolunTOTS is my job now,” says Cami. “Our first project was organized in two days. We sent valentines to three area nursing homes. Then in March, our project that kind of got us on the map was packing 3,000 thank-you baggies for health care heroes in 17 hospitals. The kids put in a granola bar, some candy, a card for money off of a set of tires, and a thank you card. Each one was hand-decorated by our tots.”
Many of the team leaders brought their kids with them when they delivered the goody bags. “The most common response was, ‘Kids did this?’” says Cami. “Yes, my kid sat for 30 minutes!”
Some of the group’s members have begun to get together to do the activities, she says, “now that people are more comfortable and able to be outdoors to do more things.” Their April event was a community outreach project, in which VolunTOTS made donations to various community organizations such as Genesis and the Braddock Free Store. June was a trip to the Gardens of Millvale, where the kids helped to turn over a garden bed, planted beans, and sampled fresh produce.
The May project, a Mother’s Day party for women in recovery at Sojourner House, was particularly poignant, says Cami. “Everyone was crying by the end. The women thanked us and said, ‘You made me feel human again.’ We recruited people who work at a hair salon, so they had their nails painted and their hair done, and we brought in flowers for a flower bar to make bouquets. We did a raffle with baskets for each of them.”
In May the group also did a toy drive for the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh to mark the end of Ramadan. To help pay for such events, VolunTOTS has an Amazon wishlist.
“We don’t want to take money until we’re a nonprofit,” says Cami, who has a steering committee and organized the group into regions (north, south, east, west and central).
“It’s been surprising how quickly it’s taken off,” she says. “I think people are looking for good, looking for joy and for community. And I think that we’re providing that for people. I came here to go to Pitt and Pittsburgh has really given me the wonderful things that have happened to me in my life, so to be able to give back to this city that has given me everything — I met my husband here, got married here, had my kids here — the pleasure is all mine.”
Once the group becomes a nonprofit organization, the goal is to go national. Cami is already brainstorming with friends in Cleveland, where she grew up, about starting a chapter in eastern Ohio.
“We’ve identified our board members and a friend who is an attorney wrote up bylaws, so I’m hoping maybe by fall we might be official,” she says. “We don’t have a website yet. That’s something we’re working toward.” The group would welcome any help with that project.
VolunTOTS partners with other organizations, such as Jeremiah’s Place, which will benefit from its Christmas in July event. The kids will be tying fleece blankets to give away there. In August, they’ll help with Hello Neighbor’s back-to-school backpack drive.
“We have an overarching theme every month,” says Cami, who is grateful for the early exposure her mother gave her to volunteering. “She said that her mom did that for her, so I’m just passing that down. We’re trying to make a better world for our kids. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? We’re trying to get the kids to make a better world for themselves.”