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When the devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, Melissa Plaskoff, a world away in Dallas, grieved for the lives lost and the thousands left homeless. So did her son Hudson, who was only 4. He asked if he and his 2-year-old brother, Parker, could set up a lemonade stand, and Melissa suggested they donate the proceeds to a relief fund. They raised a modest amount—$150—but the event had a huge impact. "It brought out a compassionate side of Hudson I didn't know was there," says Melissa. "He became much more aware of other people and their struggles."
Inspired by how a simple act of hands-on charity could transform her child, Melissa told her friends, who quickly spread the lemonade stand idea on Facebook and Twitter. Within days Melissa was being notified of plans for similar fundraisers all over the country. Hoping to harness that energy, she founded the nonprofit Lemons to Aid (LTA). Her goal is to instill a mind-set of service and philanthropy in young children. "So many parents and kids want to give back, but they don't know how," says Melissa, 38. "We want to help them so that charity becomes as natural a habit as brushing your teeth."
LTA serves primarily as an information resource. People can visit the website (lemonstoaid.org) and find guides on kid-friendly projects, from garage sales to car washes to readathons. On the LTA Facebook page, Melissa posts photos and stories of successful efforts in her hometown and across the country, like the Chicago girl who raised $35 for a local food pantry or the Dallas youth who raised $700 for victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. "I think of LTA as a starting point for an ongoing conversation between parents and children," says Melissa, who has a degree in sociology with a minor in education. "Seeing and reading about real kids in action is a great motivational tool."
Those who don't have the time to help fundraise can donate to LTA. The money goes toward sponsoring events in Dallas and LTA's overhead costs. People can also contribute to a specific organization or to one of LTA's partner that group we recently selected five teens who have shown the most drive and enthusiasm," she says. "Each will have a job for one year, like director of marketing or outreach, so they can learn how a nonprofit runs, and we'll also brainstorm together. I'm looking forward to their ideas."
Melissa believes that every child who participates in Lemons to Aid learns valuable life lessons, just as hers did. She and her husband, Bart, 43, who owns a transportation company, make sure that giving back continues to be a top priority for groups, including Soles4Souls, a Nashville-based charity that provides shoes to the needy. Kids set up a lemonade stand and a collection box, and use the money to ship the shoes to Soles4Souls, which then distributes them to people all over the world. The project is named—what else?—Lemon Drop. In an effort to get kids even more involved, Melissa put together a youth advisory board made up of 14- and 15-year-olds from Dallas schools. "There's something special about a young person raising money for a cause, even if it's only $10," says Melissa. "That child will remember forever how helping someone else made him feel, which is worth more than anything."
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.