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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Erica Brown, right, and her daughter Kelsi, 15, paint a fire hydrant along Moeller Road on Saturday morning.

Big hearts change lives

Local family commits to doing volunteer project every week

Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Volunteers, from right, Aaron Brown, Mason Waggoner, Erica Brown and Kelsi Brown complete their 109th week of volunteer work.
Courtesy
Erica Brown hugs Luka, the family’s newly adopted greyhound.

On a recent Friday night, Aaron Brown and his family gathered at their southwest Fort Wayne home awaiting the arrival of a new member – of the four-legged, wet-nosed variety.

He’s named Luka, and he’s an outgrowth of one of the family’s recent volunteer projects.

When the Browns offered to become breed ambassadors for Fort Wayne’s All-Star Greyhound Rescue, they learned the hard-luck story of the retired racer, who’d been returned to the organization after a previous adoption didn’t work out.

The Browns, who have owned three “greys” as they lovingly call their pets, wanted to give the dog another chance. So they brought him to join their current greyhound, Lilly, and their other dog, Peanut.

“It’s funny because I didn’t like dogs – I hated dogs. I grew up with cats,” says Erica Brown, wife to Aaron and mom to the couple’s daughters, Kelsi, 15, and Makenna, 12. “But when I first met the breed, I fell in love.”

Not all the Browns’ volunteer activities end with such a big change in their lives. But family members say they have definitely been altered by an idea Aaron, 37, vice president for a Fort Wayne office services company, had about three years ago.

He got the family to commit to spending time every week volunteering for a worthy community cause. He calls the family project Impact 52, and he and other family members have been documenting their weekly efforts through an online blog that now has thousands of visitors each month.

Their main goal, family members say, is to spotlight the work of the organizations they help and encourage other families to volunteer.

Although the Browns are Christian and attend The Chapel church, they say their motivation for volunteering isn’t religious.

“I think it’s more that, when you get older, you start to think about dying and what people are going to remember you for,” says Erica, 37. “You have kids, and you want to set a good example.”

Adds Aaron: “We want people who may not be religious to know they can live a life with purpose. Regardless of whether you’re a believer or not, you can still make a difference.”

Children are enriched from experiences

It’s Week 109 of the Browns’ commitment, and it’s early on a Saturday – a time most teens want to sleep in.

But Kelsi is up and has traveled to New Haven with her parents, where they’re now scraping down peeling paint and rust from neglected fire hydrants along a weedy stretch of Moeller Road outside a vacant warehouse.

It’s the third project the Browns have assisted with for NeighborLink, says Andrew Hoffman, coordinator of the website. NeighborLink is a Fort Wayne nonprofit that links projects with volunteers through a website.

“The Browns mean a lot to us because when they’re involved in a project, we know it’s going to get completed,” Hoffman says. One of the projects, repainting a house, took weeks longer than expected but the family saw it through.

“We know they’re in it to build relationships, so we know when they do a project, the people are taken care of, as well as the task at hand.”

The girls say they’ve taken some flak from people their age for the time they work for nothing.

“A lot of people say, ‘Why do it?’ I’m like, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ ” says Kelsi, who adds the family has had all kinds of experiences.

The girls assisted Street Reach for the Homeless, which hosts Dinner and Duds on Monday nights in a downtown Fort Wayne park. The group provides a free meal and gives out clothing and shoes.

They’ve sorted food for Fort Wayne’s Community Harvest Food Bank and worked in a clothing thrift shop ministry at Huntertown United Methodist Church. Kelsi helped tend the Friends of the Third World shop in Fort Wayne, learning about the arts and crafts that are made, often by women, in developing countries.

The family has helped set up for Angola’s hot-air balloon festival and cared for animals at the Fort Wayne SPCA and assisted at an after-school program for children of refugees from Myanmar, formerly Burma, at Autumn Woods in Fort Wayne.

While reading to children and playing kickball at the southeast-side apartment complex where many refugee families live, “cultural differences and language barriers seemed to disappear,” Aaron says.

One of Makenna’s favorite places to volunteer has been the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, where she made what staff members call “animal enrichment toys” – playthings to amuse wild species.

The animals “don’t like snakes, or toys that look like snakes, especially the monkeys,” she reports. “It freaks them out.”

Volunteering has helped her see “a lot of career possibilities,” Makenna says. She’s leaning toward physical therapy now, but “the more I do things there (at the zoo) the more I think I want to work with animals.”

Kelsi, meanwhile, is thinking about becoming a teacher or maybe a marine biologist. Because of her volunteer work, “I’ve had many mind-changes this year.”

That doesn’t bother Erica one bit.

“It’s great to expose the girls to this – it’s kind of opening worlds for them because it’s something different every week.”

A family inspires and guides others

At first, Aaron Brown says, he and his wife had to search for places to volunteer. He jokes that he’s probably “the most background-checked person in Fort Wayne” as organizations made sure he was legitimate.

But now, he says, the family has become so well-known for volunteering that “we have a lot of organizations that don’t hesitate to reach out to us a second or third time.”

He says he doesn’t feel the family is being taken advantage of, but attests he has seen “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of organizations.

Some groups didn’t return his phone calls offering to volunteer, and others wanted commitments of six months or more before allowing volunteers to participate.

“You have to let a volunteer come in to the agency and dip their toe in the water, so to speak – see what it does, and feel and breathe it before you ask them to make a commitment. You have to think about exposing them to what you do,” he says, adding he now does speaking engagements to help nonprofits better craft their volunteer opportunities.

“We aren’t experts,” he says, “but we have perspective.”

Aaron says readers of the family’s blog at Impact52.org have told him the family has inspired them. The family even had a request from one reader to come volunteer in Provo, Utah – a request they reluctantly turned down.

Active in Fort Wayne’s Big Brothers Big Sisters organization for four years, Aaron says one reward of volunteering came this month when he watched one of his two “littles” – once an unmotivated, so-so student – graduate from Fort Wayne Community Schools’ New Tech Academy, en route to IPFW.

“To say that I am proud of him is an understatement,” Aaron says.

Another reward was sniffing around the family’s entertainment center before settling down in front of the fireplace.

Erica’s voice becomes fervent as she relates the conditions racing greyhounds endure.

“The only life they had was in a crate,” she says, adding the dogs race for only two or three years and many are euthanized after racing or because they’re unsuitable.

“For us to think that Lilly, who is a wonderful pet, and this dog, that they had that kind of life, is hard to comprehend,” she says.

“We kind of look at it (that) the people we’ve met through the organizations we’ve volunteered for were put in front of us for a reason, and we try to embrace those opportunities,” Aaron adds.

Even when it means hugging a brand-new family dog.

rsalter@jg.net

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