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Ridgewood Teacher Creates Organization to Help Disadvantaged Children

Through the forward-thinking "Grin Givers" project, a Ridgewood teacher and two others are funding projects to give children opportunities they never thought they'd have.

It started with a bicycle but it's become so much more. For Hawes Elementary School teacher John Otterstedt, improving the lives of children extends far beyond the classroom.

Last April, Otterstedt became a mentor in the Mentoring Youth Program and was matched with an eight-year-old boy. A few months ago while in Wal-Mart, the boy saw a bicycle. 

"Knowing that his own bicycle was about 20 years old and in need of repair, I told him that he could have the bike," said Otterstedt, a village resident and father of two. "The bicycle only cost $100, but he was pushing it through the store like he was showing off a brand new Ferrari, with a smile from ear-to-ear. At that moment, I thought to myself, I wish I could do this every day."

And so he did, creating "Grin Givers" along with the help of his sister, Mary Kay Jenson, and a skilled artist, Matthew Trueman. The concept is simple – the group designs and sells t-shirts to fund "missions" designed to bring smiles to young people.

For December, Trueman, a children's book illustrator, designed t-shirts featuring a smile made out of bicycles and bicycle parts. The end result was the purchase of a bicycle, helmet and pump for a child in the mentoring program.

The January project is even more ambitious.

"We are teaming up with an organization called Bring Love In (based in Ethiopia) to send 45 Ethiopian orphans to a small amusement park in Addis Ababa," Otterstedt wrote in an e-mail to Patch. "The children pass the amusement park on their way to school every day, but have never had a chance to go in. We are going to change that!"

The help-your-neighbor troupe has also taken to social media to spread messages of goodwill and selflessness. Jenson combs through the internet for uplifting stories of people helping others to add onto the group's Facebook and Twitter pages.

The project has led Otterstedt to wonder how he can incorporate Grin Givers and its messages into the classroom.

"How can a bunch of eight-year-olds use the internet and a bit of elbow grease to positively affect the lives of others around them?" he asked. "This Grin Givers project is teaching me a lot about social networking and mobilizing others, and ideas for taking it into the classroom – and out into the community – are already swimming around in my head." 

Want to help out? Buy a t-shirt here.

denise January 07, 2013 at 11:43 AM
This sounds like a very rewarding experience for all involved. I know there are so many local children in need and so I am surprised that for the first real mentoring we are looking at something overseas. Valley hospital has several cancer patients as well as the eldery that can use a smile.
T. Powers January 07, 2013 at 09:02 PM
Go Mr. O! This sounds like a wonderful idea. A child in need is a child in need no matter where they are located. Certainly there is no reason that others should feel impeded to initiate their own acts to help local people if they so desire.
John Otterstedt January 07, 2013 at 11:42 PM
Denise....Thank you for your comments. I agree that there are many local children in need. We actually worked with a child who is part of Bergen County's Mentoring Youth program for Project Santa Cycle (see video above), and our next project for February will most likely benefit a group home in the area. I am going out to visit the home next week. We went with the Africa idea this month because we were excited to do something cool and the opportunity presented itself. I had read Levi Benkert's book No Greater Love over the summer, and I was amazed at the work he was doing in Ethiopia. When I found out that I had a chance to help him out and make a bunch of kids happy, I jumped at it. There will definitely be many more projects that target people in this country in the future, though we are not ruling out an occasional overseas project. I am also sketching out plans to create a local social networking tool that will link up my class - and perhaps others - with needs in our local community.......Thank you again for the feedback! You can reach me at johnotterstedt@gmail.com if you have any suggestions.
roberta sonenfeld January 08, 2013 at 12:00 AM
The Mentoring Youth Program is a part of the Volunteer Center of Bergen County. There are other programs like this one that are supported by the Volunteer Center. A lot of effort lately has been goi g to Sandy relief in our heavily hit Bergen County communities. We should all be grateful to have John Otterstedt as a part of this community and his efforts have been great. A disclaimer - I am on the Board of the Volunteer Center of Bergen County and I am really proud of the work we are doing int Bergen Cunty communities.
Joan Hartmann January 08, 2013 at 10:23 AM
Love, love this effort. This is not the first time that John has been involved with "caring." I remember an article that was posted about planting flowers for a former Hawes teacher. Wonderful lesson for students.

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