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.