Roma Trivedi’s earliest memory of giving something back to the community is of when, as a 3-year-old, she accompanied her mother to an old-folks home in the United States, where she would sing and dance for the elderly.
Since then, she has associated charity with joy and fun. When she was 8, she set up the Hope programme at her school in Philadelphia, which provided lunch for homeless people in her community.
When she moved to the UAE five years ago, Trivedi, who is now 17, established a similar programme at the American School of Dubai to provide care packages to labourers.
The UAE government has designated 2017 as the Year of Giving to promote philanthropy and a spirit of volunteering, with families, schools and companies encouraged to participate in charitable work.
There is evidence that such altruism is rooted in social learning at home and school – and Trivedi’s efforts are a shining example.
“I was very little when I would go with my mom to retirement homes and sing to the elderly,” she says. “So I’ve been exposed to such community service for a long time.
“I began looking forward to it because I started associating giving and charity with having fun, and as I grew older, I became more and more passionate towards it.”
She says her mother is her role model, adding: “My mom is a selfless woman.”
Trivedi is also a member of the Sustainable Economics Education Nutrition and Health (Seenah) club at the school. This initiative, founded in Dubai in 2009, encourages pupils to get involved in fundraising and community-service projects to support disadvantaged communities around the world. “This might not be applicable to all children, but it is important to have parents or older siblings that can teach you the values of giving back to the community,” says Trivedi.
The club members recently raised funds for 400 care packages containing cooking oil, lentils, water bottles, soap, razors and toothpaste for workers in a labour camp in Dubai.
Trivedi is also spearheading a local chapter of Educate Girls Globally, an international organisation that travels to slums in India to distribute donated tablet computers and sanitary products to young girls.
A 2013 study by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University, in collaboration with the United Nations Foundation, concluded that talking to children about charity and role models has an impact on their attitudes towards giving. The study notes that parents play an important role in preparing their children to become charitable adults.
Runie Trivedi, Roma’s mum, says charity is about more than just giving money to a cause.
“Making an impact requires hands-on action – and whenever I’ve done community work, my children have accompanied me,” she says. “I never brought them up thinking they need to be giving, but that’s what they’ve learnt.
“The world is more than just making money and feeling successful. It is about enriching the lives of others – and I believe that lesson starts young. I learnt it from my parents, now I’m sharing that with my kids.”
Joanne Jewell, the founder of Mindful Parenting in Dubai, says children are highly impressionable.
“Children learn through what they see, hear and experience more than anything else,” she says.
“Explaining the concept of charity to a child logically will only be relevant when they are old enough to understand, but even before that parents can demonstrate values of care and kindness with their own behaviour and words.”
Demonstrating such a caring attitude and being mindful about how you speak to a child are equally important to illustrate those values from an early age.
“You can role model care by picking them up when they cry or by being responsive to your children’s emotional needs,” says Jewell.
“Using the skill of empathy is also extremely important. Many parents end up being sympathetic – that’s not a skill that allows you to connect with somebody and think about their perspective.”
She gives an example of how a mother can empathise with her toddler’s needs.
“Instead of pacifying the child with, ‘It is OK, mummy will look after you’, a parent must change the language and say something like, ‘I can see you are upset about something and it must be hard’. You then wait until the connection is made before helping them. That is being altruistic, thinking of what the child needs.”
She explains that it will become subconsciously ingrained in children – this is how they, too, should be relating to the problems of others.
Experts say teaching compassion reduces depression, improves self-esteem and also instils the importance of goals in children. Researchers at the University of California studied 74 preschool-age children, and found that those who were more giving during their experiment displayed higher activity in the vagus nerve, which controls the heart, lungs and digestive tract. This is linked to a decreased risk of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and lower levels of anxiety and depression.
Many schools understand the significance of these results and reinforce altruistic values by introducing them in lessons. At the Raha International School (RIS) in Abu Dhabi, service and action are a mandatory part of the curriculum.
“The aim is to have students commit to a common good,” says Sharon Thompson, the middle-years programme coordinator at the International Baccalaureate-curriculum school.
“They must show care towards the community and take actions to make a positive difference in the lives of others and the environment.” “That is our expectation from every child.”
To that end, the school encourages community service with every topic taught in the classroom.
“Research shows how absorbent young minds are in things like languages and values,” says Thompson.
“We see that, even with our grade one children. Just recently they were so devastated because visitors were littering the school car park that they started painting the bins with words such as ‘feed me’, just so that people would notice. They are trying to make a better environment for others to live in – and I’m talking about 5-year-old children.”
Yee-an Liao, a grade eight pupil at RIS, has, with his mother’s help, been making dinner packs for the security and cleaning staff in his community twice a month for two years.
“I feel quite happy when we cook for them,” says the 13-year-old pupil, who invites friends over to help pack the dinner boxes.
“I like sharing this joy with the guards, cleaners and electricians. Since they are so far away from home, I think we should be giving them a little taste of our home and make them feel a part of the family.”
That is his family’s way of showing appreciation, he adds.
His mother, Helen, says she reminds her son he has a privileged life.
“I want him to open his eyes and heart to people who aren’t in the position we are in,” she says. “The school’s push for altruism adds to our efforts in raising him as a responsible and caring human being.”
At the Gems Nations Academy in Dubai, even robotics lessons feature empathy as part of the lesson.
Geis Morris Odubo is working on a nano-technology project that could improve the lives of people with genetic disorders.
“Even though this is a science project, we aren’t just creating something in the classroom,” says the 13-year-old pupil. “We have to connect with people with diseases such as Alzheimer’s or their families. This way, we can help them better because we can understand what they are going through.”
Dorianne Pagnotti, the middle-school STEM-education teacher, says the project was introduced to make the children feel part of something bigger.
“We are training them for jobs that don’t yet exist,” she says. “But as we prepare them, we don’t want them to become machines and lose their empathy or lose touch with humanity.
“The best results in problem solving is when they are connected to people they want to help.”