The reason that Sparrow Club USA nonprofit exists, and the reason that 23-year-old Michael Leeland says he is alive today are one in the same—a generous 7th grader named Dameon and a sick baby named Michael.
Back in 1992, Dameon helped Michael Leeland's father Jeff in the adaptive PE class he taught in a suburb of Seattle. When Dameon learned that Michael—then just an infant who had recently been diagnosed with leukemia—was in need of a bone marrow transplant that would go uncovered by his parents' insurance, he emptied his bank account. With a grand total of 12 balled up $5 bills, he donated his life savings to his teacher, eventually rallying the community around the family in need and raising $227,000 to help cover Michael's medical expenses.
"We start every Sparrow Club we launch with an all-school assembly so I get to tell Dameon's story and my story," says Leeland, who after his graduation from the University of Oregon in 2010, is now the regional director for Central Oregon Sparrow Club. "Dameon had a kind heart. My dad asked him, years later, why he did it and he just said 'It was the right thing to do, if someone is in trouble you help them.' "
Out of that small act of kindness emerged a national nonprofit, Sparrow Clubs USA. Here's how it works: A child in medical need is adopted by a school, a business partner donates seed money and then the kids in the school do community service hours to raise the seed money for their Sparrow.
"It's a service-learning project more than a fundraising group," explains Leeland. "It's all inclusive because some kids can't afford to give, but if you take the money part out of it, asking do you want to make a difference through community service, then everyone can get involved."
It's this meta-community service model that really makes the difference for Sparrow. Not only are they able to donate community service hours— 13,000 completed by young people in Central Oregon alone last year—but, they're offering children lifelong lessons in compassion and the joy of helping others.
"Especially these days everything is about me, me, me with social media," says Leeland. "One of our main goals is to change youth culture from the inside out. Kids see a local child in medical need and they catch a community service bug. They can realize, 'That felt really good, I want to continue to serve.' It's building things in these kids don't learn in school—compassion, consciousness, courage—they're aware of their local community and what they can do."
The recent recession caused some bumps in acquiring business sponsors for Sparrow—at one point Leeland says Sparrow was in more than 40 local schools and in hundreds more across the country, but, as you would expect, he has a defiantly positive attitude about the future of the organization.
"Before 2008 we were in over 20 states. Since then we had to pull back because a lot of our funding was pulled after the recession. I'm sure a lot of other nonprofits felt that as well," said Leeland. "We are in rebuilding mode. This year we are on track in over 20 schools locally."
Despite the struggles, the innumerable success stories make it worth the hard work.
"Highland Magnet School launched their Sparrow just a few weeks ago and they adopted a little boy named Tyrus who has brittle bone disease. When he was born he had four fractures, which is pretty incredible. His mom said he can break a bone just by falling over the right angle. It was a great assembly, the kids really rallied around Tyrus and his family," says Leeland, his smile emanating through the phone line. "My favorite part of the assembly was they honored two 4th grade boys that instead of receiving a birthday gifts had asked people give money for their Sparrow. The money portion goes pretty quick when the medical bills are piling up, but the emotional support far outweighs the financial."