Modern Life: A Family That Gives Back All Year Round

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Neal, 10; Todd Ewen, 47, commercial real estate developer; Ilina D. Ewen, 47, marketing consultant and writer; Carter, 12; and dog Lark

“Giving back starts with being a good, engaged citizen,” says Ilina D. Ewen, and that is how she and husband Todd have raised their two sons, Carter and Neal. “I’ve taken the boys with me to vote in every single election, big and small. We talk about the privilege and duty to vote, and they see how much I love it. We also discuss how we can help others. The boys have joined me on protest marches when our schools were on the verge of re-segregating, and they have participated in rallies to support teachers and public education. We believe in involving them with rolled-up sleeves as well as with financial donations. I serve on the boards of two organizations and volunteer a lot, and so does my husband. Our sons see us participate in our community, so it’s just natural that they join in.”

Ilina and Todd instilled that sort of commitment in the boys at an early age, encouraging them to share some of the contents of their piggy banks with charities of their choice. Carter’s first donation was to a local ASPCA because his first word was “dog,” and Neal’s fascination with firefighters inspired him to send money to an organization that helps families of the fallen. The couple’s efforts seem to have paid off: Carter and Neal understand the importance of giving back and being involved. Ilina is proud of her boys and the strong individuals they are. “Carter is insightful and wise beyond his years. He displays a confidence that I envy. He is open to new experiences, no questions asked,” says Ilina. “Neal is gentle and kind. He’s the kid who seeks out those who are left out or bullied. He has a silly sense of humor and a mechanically inclined mind that blows me away. He is the epitome of a sweet kid who always thinks of others first.”

Ilina says that she and her husband did not consciously set out to rear their sons to be activists—it was a by-product of spending time with them. “Both Todd and I believe in lifting up others in order to raise our community, and we realize that we, as everyday citizens, can and should make a difference.” As a result, Carter and Neal have volunteered at a food bank and Stop Hunger Now, and the boys have written letters to their senators about topics that are important to them. For Carter it’s standardized testing; for Neal, veteran’s benefits.

“In all our volunteer efforts we focus on what we can do locally, nationally and globally. I frequently write letters to the editor and of course write about heated topics on my blog,” says Ilina.

They wanted their boys to see the big picture firsthand, so a family trip this past year to India—Ilina’s birthplace, which she hadn’t visited in 20 years—was the perfect opportunity. “Traveling as a family has significantly contributed to our sons’ outlook. They see how differently people live and how cultures vary.” The boys enjoyed spending time with their relatives, visiting the Taj Mahal, eating new foods and seeing monkeys and a tiger, but they were also very aware of their surroundings. Carter observed the lives of other young people. “There shouldn’t be children making bricks on the side of the road,” he noted. And Neal, upon realizing that girls do not receive the same educational opportunities as boys, decided to donate his birthday money to a girls’ school they had visited in India.

Viewing the world around them made the family even more appreciative of what they have. “Before we eat, instead of saying grace, we say our thank-yous. We hold hands and each share something from the day we are thankful for.” This month they’ve begun a new tradition: using fall leaves to make what they call a (Thanks)Giving Tree. On each leaf they write down something they’re grateful for. “I dangle the leaves on branches with some twine, and it sits atop our kitchen table as a reminder of the season.” We’re guessing that their little tree will have many, many leaves.

What's the biggest challenge of parenting?

Other parents! I say this half-jokingly. It’s hard to stay focused on our values when families and my sons’ peers handle things differently. For example, Carter doesn’t have a cell phone while most of his friends do. I’m told I’m the strictest mom when it comes to screen time and video games. We’ve reached the stage when I hear “But so-and-so’s mom lets him do it!” or “But so-and-so doesn’t have chores!” I’m not saying other parents are wrong, and I’m not being judgmental, but in the age of social media and screens, this is all the more difficult to navigate. We just stick to the mantra, “In our family, this is how we do it.”

What do love most about your husband?

He is a gentle giant. When you look up "down-to-earth" in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Todd. He is as authentic as they come, with nary a judgmental bone. He is generous, smart and funny. Todd is a hands-on dad who is always home for dinner, cooks on weekends, plays LEGO and basketball with the kids, and rolls up his sleeves to scrub toilets too.

It is not easy. Parenting is the life of Sisyphus. We don’t have any family near us, so it’s exponentially harder to juggle it all. There was a period when Todd traveled a lot for work and even worked in another state for 18 months, coming home on weekends. That was a tough spell for all of us. We are fortunate to have friends who are like family, which helps immensely. But the real secret to balance for us is to limit our activities. I joke that our sons are the least scheduled children in America. Carter and Neal have just one activity at a time, so we're not shuttling to and fro as we run around town.

I'm lucky to work from home, so I can get some things started for dinner or be flexible when someone is sick or has an appointment. Neal walks to school, making it very easy for me to pop up to volunteer in his class. But the real secret is a husband who really does it all. Todd works hard but is always home for dinner and plays with the kids and helps with math homework (that’s my Achilles' heel). He is not the kind of dad who “babysits” his own children. We have a true partnership, and we both contribute to the oiling our family’s gears.

Tell us about the fund that you helped start at Neal’s school.

Creating and nurturing the Cecilia Rawlins Fund has been a labor of love in partnership with a few other moms at Neal’s school. In 2010 a group of Wiley Elementary School parents and the school social worker met to address the hunger needs of the schoolchildren. With an identifiable link between hunger and academic challenges, this group started a program to provide weekend food bags to relieve food stress in identified children. In partnership with Raleigh’s Interfaith Food Shuttle and sponsorships through area churches, parents and community members, funding was secured to send weekly bags of food home to 25 Wiley children each week through Interfaith’s Backpack Buddies program.

While the Backpack Buddies program got off the ground, there were additional requests to the school social worker and a parent crisis-relief group to assist families with a variety of emergency situations. These included one-time help with utility bills, assistance to families transitioning out of homelessness, and gas cards for families traveling during medical crises. Volunteer parents quickly realized the extent of the need and the lack of resources to help these Wiley families.

The fund was established to honor esteemed principal Cecilia Rawlins, who retired from Wiley Elementary School in 2007 after 10 years at the helm. In lieu of parting gifts, the Wiley community donated funds to help support initiatives to feed hungry children at the school. Ms. Rawlins’ philosophy guided her actions to nurture the whole child to ensure that needs were met both inside and outside the school walls. It was her selfless outreach to kids in need at Wiley that inspired the creation of this fund.

Which three words would your sons use to describe you?

Carter: Generous, selfless, kind.

Neal: Smart, engaged, gifted.

For more from Ilina, follow her blog, Dirt & Noise: dirtandnoise.com.