Kids Who Make a Difference
Photos by Kara Thorpe
When it comes to doing good deeds, we could all learn from children. These good deeds seem to come naturally to youth. Children see simple acts of kindness as just doing the right thing and their innocence and action can have a profound impact on the lives of others. Here are three remarkable kids who have made our community stronger by giving back not just at the holidays, but every day.
Lead by Example
When Max Renzi was in fourth grade, he began experiencing intermittent hair loss. It first appeared as nickel-sized spots of hair missing from his head. Max was diagnosed with Alopecia, an auto-immune disease that causes hair loss on the scalp, face and sometimes other areas of the body. It affects as many as 6 million people in the US and often appears during childhood. Max’s alopecia appeared to subside, but when he entered middle school, he began to experience symptoms again.
In November of 2018, his hair began to fall out all over his body. Max received wonderful support from his brothers Aidan and Noah and his teachers at Bull Run Middle School and Principal Phythian, who granted approval to wear a hat in school. But despite their support, Max wasn’t ready to share with his friends and schoolmates that he was losing his hair. And he was physically uncomfortable not having hair on his head and body, a feeling that many of us who have never lost hair, take for granted. As a baseball player who often wears baseball caps, it was at times painful.
Max’s parents, Lauren and Alex, did extensive research to find therapies, even traveling to New York Medical Center and consulting with a leading practitioner in alopecia hoping for answers and options to regrow his hair. One option called for a series of needles in Max’s head, which none of the Renzi’s thought was viable. Unfortunately, there is no cure, and most therapies involve immunosuppressants, which is less than ideal for a young, growing boy.
After some time and many questions from classmates, Max decided to confront the topic. He took some painful questions and comments and used them to fuel his courage to remove his hat and in April of this year launched his awareness campaign aptly named Max’s Mission.
“Don’t give up,” said Max. “even if people are rude to you. Let it give you fuel. At that moment it might not make you feel good, but then it helps give you energy to keep going and prove them wrong. Speak out.”
So that’s just what he did. By presenting on the morning announcements, Max explained what he was going through. He also created a fundraising campaign with all the proceeds benefiting the National Alopecia Awareness Foundation (NAAF). T-shirts were created and sold with half of the proceeds going to NAAF. There was a challenge to wear the shirt, or shave your head or cut your hair as part of the mission. Max’s physical education teacher Mr. Paul Mongillo shaved his head in support. 20 kids and three teachers (including Mr. M.) shaved their heads and two girls donated their hair.
And it didn’t stop at Bull Run Middle.
Alyson Satterwhite invited Max to attend the Prince William County School Board meeting to present. Mr. Phythian, Mr. Mongillo and Mrs. D’Amico joined to support him. Battlefield High School’s baseball team invited Max to attend a game and throw out the first pitch. Even friends and family in Rhode Island joined the mission – a family friend’s barber shop donated 100% of his proceeds one day to Max’s Mission and the local baseball farm team invited Max to throw out the first pitch as they joined the mission to spread awareness. Even his favorite pro football player, Rob Gronkowski, donated a signed jersey for auction (which Max’s family friend won at auction and gave to him).
Max and his mission have made an impact on many.
“The stories people shared were so inspiring. Max was calling people to thank them for sharing their stories. It really gets you through difficult times by sharing. The support was tremendous,” mom Lauren shared.
Max’s goal of raising $1,000 was far exceeded. In total he raised more than $7,000. Max’s Mission is not over. For more information, see the sidebar accompanying this article.
You’ve Got a Friend
When Braedan White started first grade at Haymarket Elementary School, he didn’t know many children. He attended Haymarket Baptist Preschool for preschool and Kindergarten and going from the small class size and smaller school to a large new school felt overwhelming. Described by his parents as “a heart with arms and legs,” Braedan is an empathetic and loving child who likes to play with others and is always looking to make sure those around him are happy.
“When I first came to my elementary school, I had no friends. So, I told my mom I wish I had a buddy bench like I did at my preschool,” Braedan said. A buddy bench is a simple idea designed to ensure every kid has a friend to play with. According to Braedan, the rules of the buddy bench are simple:
Rule number one: If someone is sitting on the bench, go ask if they want to play and make a new friend.
Rule number two: If you want to meet a new friend and don’t have someone to play with, sit on the bench.
After discussing the idea with his parents, Braedan asked his principal, Mr. Baldwin, if he could make a buddy bench for HMES. Mr. Baldwin asked him to devise a plan, which Braedan discussed over several lunches with the principal. After Mr. Baldwin was convinced it was a good fit for their school, he told Braedan that he would take it to the PTO to get funding and a bench. But Braedan had other plans – he wanted to make it himself.
Braedan’s dad is a woodworker and often builds things from scratch. With his father’s supervision, and some help with the larger pieces and large saws, Braedan built the bench with his own hands. When the bench was completed, he gave a presentation over the morning announcements and it was later unveiled at school. The PTO did get involved by adding two additional buddy benches to the playground.
“There are a whole bunch of kids at school you could be friends with, no matter how big or how old they are. It doesn’t matter. Find a friend and be happy you have one,” Braedan said. Very wise advice from a third grader.
Building Blocks of Love
Niko Chavarriaga is your typical eight-year old boy who loves to play with LEGOs, loves his little sister, sports and superheroes. Little does he know that he has become a super hero to many children at Inova Fairfax Hospital with his mission to provide LEGO sets to patients having treatment.
When Niko was in Kindergarten at Haymarket Elementary School when he was diagnosed with B Cell ALL Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. He has had many treatments for leukemia and at times needed to be homeschooled. He understands what it is like to be in a hospital room and found that Lego’s were the only thing that helped to distract him and keep his hands busy. Naturally, he wanted to help others find a way to feel better while undergoing their treatments. His family also wanted to raise awareness in the community that kids get cancer too, and funding and research is needed to find a cure. Thus began Niko’s #Nikostrong mission to collect new LEGO sets and donate them to Inova Fairfax Children’s hospital.
“Niko is really one of the most kind and compassionate kids I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Niko is often not feeling 100%, but he always gives 200% in class when I see him,” Anna Collins-Walker, his teacher and tutor shared.
Last year was the first year he collected Legos and received a whopping 49 new sets. This year, Niko decided to set the bar higher. Dressed in his Forky costume from Toy Story 4, he greeted parents at Back to School night, handed out fliers and has collected more than 200 sets. Mrs. Collins created a YouTube video to spread the word of his goal to classmates, family and friends, and the result is that people from as far away as Japan have helped him.
“Niko is truly the bravest kid I’ve ever met. He’s always thinking of others and is completely selfless,” said his mom, Karla.
Niko has no plans of stopping. Even though his treatment will end in December of next year, he plans to continue to collect and distribute LEGO sets to the children at Inova Fairfax Children’s Hospital. This second grader has aspirations as big as his heart and will continue to be a hero to the many kids he helps.
Max, Braedan and Niko, thank you for all that you have done and continue to do to help those around you. Each one of you is an inspiration and your community appreciates you!