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It's thanks to her grandmother that Alyssa Garvey was able to give a lasting Easter gift. On Christmas Day 2010, after the mountain of presents had dwindled down and each toy had been distributed, Earlene Beko looked around the room at her seven grandchildren. "The kids had gotten so many things," she remembers thinking. "Between their parents, me and my husband, and their aunts and uncles, there were tons of gifts." She reflected on the larger meaning of the holiday season. "My greatest wish was for them to realize there's more joy in giving than receiving," she says.
Before the family dispersed to their various hometowns in Washington and Oregon, Earlene decided to try an experiment. She gathered her grandchildren around her and handed them each $50, along with a short note. It began by saying how much she loved them and ended with a challenge: Take the $50 and make it grow by Easter -- the next time they'd all be together. Then they could donate the money to a cause of their choice.
Over the next few months Earlene's money was used to donate art supplies to needy children and fund a scholarship to a local basketball camp, among other projects. But it was the youngest grandchild, Alyssa, then 8 years old, who added her own imagination to her grandmother's inspiration and ended up contributing to her community in a big way.
It wasn't until February, when she received a baking set for her birthday, that Alyssa came up with her plan. "I decided I would earn extra money by baking cupcakes," she says. With the help of her mother, Debra, Alyssa made dozens of chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and lemon cupcakes. She called her business Lulu's Scrumptious Cupcakes, after her nickname. To drum up sales she created flyers and went door to door in her Keizer, Oregon, neighborhood -- with her mom's supervision -- offering free samples.
By the time her grandmother's deadline rolled around in April, Alyssa had raised $103, contributed $10 of her own money and added her grandmother's original $50 for a total of $163 that she planned to donate to the local Boys & Girls Club. Alyssa, who is now 11, had been hanging out at the Boys & Girls Club of Salem, Marion and Polk Counties since she was 4 years old -- her mom had been working there for nearly two decades -- and was particularly interested in contributing to the Health and Dental Services Center, which provides free dental care to needy children. "I noticed a lot of the kids wore the same clothes and that their teeth weren't really healthy," says Alyssa. "I wanted to help them."
The club's health and dental services director, Jodi Loper, remembers when she received Alyssa's initial gift. "It came in a little box with a pink silk flower on it, and a handwritten note on Boys & Girls stationery, which had a picture of kids, including Alyssa. The photo had an arrow pointing to it and the word 'me,' in case we didn't know who she was," Loper says. "But of course we knew her." Impressed by Alyssa's generosity, the club's executive director forwarded a copy of her note to board members, who sent it to their colleagues, including Chris Matheny. The Mathenys were Alyssa's next-door neighbors, but since the family is vegan -- no dairy or eggs as well as no meat -- Alyssa didn't feel it was right to ask them to buy cupcakes. Chris then sent the e-mail to his wife, Sarah, creator of a popular vegan blog and cookbook called Peas and Thank You, suggesting they match Alyssa's $163 donation. Sarah agreed they should do something, but she wanted it to have an impact.
"My daughters are 5 and 7, and they love Alyssa," Sarah says. "Since they idolize her, I thought supporting her could illustrate how a small spark of an idea can ignite change." Sarah wrote a blog post about Alyssa called "The Hero Next Door." It included the backstory of the cupcake business, a copy of her note to Jodi Loper and a link to a speech Alyssa had given at a Boys & Girls Club fundraiser a few weeks before. "In her speech, Alyssa emphasized it only takes one person to make a difference," says Matheny. "I wanted to prove to her -- and to my girls -- that those words were true." Matheny asked her blog followers to contribute to Alyssa's endeavor through the Boys & Girls Club website. As an incentive, she offered batches of her popular vegan cookie balls to five randomly selected people who donated at least one dollar.
Readers of Peas and Thank You from all over opened their wallets, raising $2,600 in Alyssa's name. More than 70 people posted comments about Alyssa's story, calling it "inspirational" and "beautiful." Matheny couldn't believe it. "I was amazed that they cared about a small dental center in Oregon," she says. After two more contributions from club donors on Alyssa's behalf, the final amount neared $5,600. The money was used to buy more than a thousand packets of toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss.
Alyssa says she's proud of her accomplishment and has learned that helping other people makes her happy. She's even thinking about teaching a cupcake-making class at the club. And Grandma Earlene has also realized a thing or two. "I originally set out to teach my grandkids a valuable lesson," she says. "But in the end, I was reminded of how wonderful and heartening people can be."
To make a donation in Alyssa's name, visit bgc-salem.org.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.