Through our Code for a Cause (“CFAC”) initiative, Next Jump gives its employees dedicated time off to work with non-profits in need of engineering and other technical expertise – to help them achieve the great things they’ve set out to achieve. The projects are meant not only to help the non-profits we work with, but also our employees. These projects provide an avenue for Next Jumpers to work on their technical and project management skills, as well as their personal goals of character growth.
Our latest group of summer interns were paired with Aaron’s Presents, a Boston-based non-profit. Founded by Leah Okimoto in 2013, Aaron’s Presents was inspired by her son Aaron, who passed away shortly after his birth in 2013. The non-profit aims to provide grants, support, and mentorship to children in 8th grade or below who want to turn their thoughtful ideas for creative projects that benefit others into reality. We sat down with Leah to learn more about her story and her incredible vision that our CFAC team helped to further.
Tell us about how Aaron’s Presents came about. What was the toughest part?
Last fall, I just had this idea and didn’t know how it would actually turn out, but it struck me as unique and worth pursuing. That fall was interesting, because emotionally it was a pretty hard time. I always talk about how when you lose a child, and especially a baby, you lose the future. You have to completely re-envision the future, and that of your family and the people around you. So last fall, this project gave me something to focus my energy on and helped me process and re-envision my future.
From September to November, I was putting together a preliminary business plan but also learning how to do some basic website design. I would literally spend an entire evening learning how to change colors, or an entire day adding a button.
Starting in January, the program really took shape when I presented the idea to kids for the first time, an assembly of sixth-graders at an inner-city public charter school. When I told them my story, it was a show of vulnerability from an adult, which I think is kind of rare for a kid to see. They were really listening and connected with the idea that an adult would put resources in their hands. It was also a novel concept for them because they’re young and don’t have a lot of material resources, so that aspect was key to gaining their interest and helping them realize that “Wow, this is a real opportunity.”
What surprised you? Tell us about some of the kids who impressed you.
The kids didn’t have that much help, but we still got 8 applications from the charter school! The ideas that the kids came up with were very inspiring, and also validating for me, because these were exactly the types of ideas I had been hoping to see. I remember being really struck by Clareese, a 6th grade girl who wanted to create a loaner program of reflective vests and whistles at school. I remember her writing in her application that she had noticed some of her classmates walking to and from school, sometimes at night and through not-great neighborhoods and not always feeling safe. She came up with this plan to have kids borrow the vests and whistles to see if they felt any safer.
I was really blown away by her initiative. One of the most important things I wanted the program to inspire kids to do is be aware of their environment and the needs of people around them. Clareese’s idea embodied this goal in every way. So that was very powerful to me; I loved her idea immediately, and it made me think that we might be onto something good.
I remember this 6th grade boy, Luis, who had some trouble focusing in school. He didn’t tell any of his teachers that he was applying, and it was a complete surprise to all of them when he turned in his application. He did an excellent job on his application without any help. He loved making rainbow loom jewelry and had applied for a grant to turn that into a business because he had always wanted to start a business. His budget was only $28, for a rainbow loom, some rubber bands, and a book. He had priced them all out at the dollar store. So we started meeting weekly and talking about why he wanted to do this and what he could do to use his passion to benefit others. He also ended up designing a really cool business card that we got printed up for him to attach to each item. At our ice cream celebration in June, he blew me away by showing up with a trifold display board he had made, again completely on his own initiative, with pictures of the jewelry he’d made. He validated my belief that if you give kids a little bit of encouragement and opportunities to put their thoughts into action, at their level, they will rise to the occasion and go above and beyond any of our expectations. That has been really gratifying to witness time and again. It really makes you feel like they got something out of this experience that will stay with them. His parents were so proud too, and Luis was just beaming that whole day.
Who and what are you thankful for?
So many, so many people.
There’s been a huge amount of encouragement along the way from the school (LCCPS in Lowell, MA). The head of school there, Kathy Egmont, is a very rare head of school. Even though she and the other teachers are incredibly swamped, she is just very open to any new initiatives that will create opportunities for the students. Never once did I hear “Oh, we don’t have time for this.”
And I am incredibly grateful to Next Jump, because this website is such an important tool for us. When Jooe said we were going to be Next Jump’s summer project for the interns, I had had no idea and was beyond thrilled; it was such a surprise! It is pushing us forward in every aspect of our organization’s growth, because now I feel so much more comfortable spreading the word to anyone and everyone who will listen.. Now we have something that shows people what we’ve done and what we plan to do in a visually compelling way. I know that it has played a vital role in enabling me to reach over 20 schools/organizations in less than 2 months, attracting the attention of an editor for a feature story in a local magazine, getting an article published in another widely distributed magazine for local families, and reaching 44% of our first official fundraiser’s $20K goal in less than 3 weeks. To say that the website project was an incredible gift is an understatement. I will remember Val, Talha, Wei-En, Awais and the rest of the wonderfully collaborative, generous and dedicated CFAC team forever and will never stop saying thank you in whatever ways I can think of!