There's no doubt John Holland-McCowan appreciates growing up with no want in well-heeled Atherton.
But part of him feels guilty about it, too.
During a family vacation in Hawaii when he was about 5 years old, his mother told him how fortunate he was to have toys when so many other children in the world didn't.
"I burst out crying," recalled Holland-McCowan, now 18. "I have always been a sensitive person, really. So as soon as we came back home, I wanted to help the homeless."
That deep sense of what he has and what others don't has driven Holland-McCowan from an early age to volunteer and encourage his peers to do the same.
At 6, with the help of his mom, he founded Kids Cheering Kids, anonprofit group made up of children and young adults ages 5 to 23 who volunteer at homeless shelters and centers for chronically ill youth.
"I think it's very important for kids to really care for other kids who have medical conditions or who are homeless," said Holland-McCowan, a junior at Menlo School. "It's important to give less-fortunate kids hope and show them people their age are thinking about them."
He and his group did just that recently in Palo Alto at the Ronald McDonald House, which provides a home-away-from-home atmosphere for families of children who have life-threatening illnesses and are receiving specialized treatment at local hospitals.
The group organized an Easter-themed party for the children and their
"We played on the monkey bars," said Farah Ahmad, 8, who stays at the house. "We found Easter eggs. It was 10-times fun."
The visit by Kids Cheering Kids impressed Ronald McDonald client Chris Canilanza, 37, whose infant daughter underwent successful open-heart surgery.
"They show a youthful, positive attitude in times of trauma of families," Canilanza said. "It's beyond expectation."
Sarah Reichanadter, Ronald McDonald children's activity coordinator, appreciated how Kids Cheering Kids gave children at the house a fun distraction from their medical issues.
"The kids can have an hour or two when they are not thinking about the hospital," Reichanadter said. "And it's neat to see such a young group thinking about other than themselves, supporting local organizations and doing something selfless."
Kids Cheering Kids volunteer Jazmin Moledina, 16, credited Holland-McCowan's leadership for motivating fellow youth to help others in need.
"He has a vision, knows how to accomplish it and is willing to put in the work," Jazmin said. "He sets the bar high and pushes people to participate as much as possible."
Holland-McCowan developed his vision early in life.
After his family returned from the Hawaiian vacation, his mom set him up to volunteer at a day care for special-needs children. There Holland-McCowan, then a second-grader, played and spent time with the other youngsters.
That nascent volunteerism quickly evolved into Kids Cheering Kids, whose outreach has gone global. The group is raising funds to buy toys, books and supplies for orphans in Swaziland in southern Africa as well as heighten AIDS awareness there.
The fundraising drive grew out of a school-sponsored trip Holland-McCowan took to that region of Africa, where he saw no lack of destitution and desperation.
"It was just a life-changing experience," he said. "I saw people affected by AIDS. I went to orphanages. To see extreme poverty was overwhelming. I felt a profound sense of how fortunate I am."
Holland-McCowan's mom, Anne, believes volunteering is just second nature to her son.
"It's just been a joy for him — a huge passion and interest," she said. "I think it was just born with him."
For more information, visit the Web site www.kidscheeringkids.org.
Neil Gonzales covers education. Contact him at 650-348-4338.
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