“I wanted to be a pilot,” says Valerie, reflecting back on her younger self. Now? She’s more like an Air Traffic Controller as she juggles life as both a Hockey and Soccer Mom to three active boys and her involvement with various community and service activities.
Valerie, her husband, and three boys (ages 8, 10, and 15) have lived in Mullica Hill for approximately seven years. She grew up right over in Williamstown but left New Jersey to attend college in Florida. She arrived at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University on a full ROTC AirForce scholarship with dreams of flying planes. During her freshman year, fate threw in some new plans. She met and fell in love with the man who would become her husband. He hailed from a neighboring South Jersey town and was also in the ROTC. They eventually married and moved … a lot. During her husband’s military career they lived in many different places, including Tennessee, Virginia and even two years in Korea.
However, she and her husband eventually circled back to South Jersey, a place that has always felt like home. They bought a house Elk Township and eventually migrated to Mullica Hill. Valerie loves this town and has become an active member of the community through the Mullica Hill Women’s Tri Club, her sons’ sporting teams, and involvement in her church. She co-leads two bible studies and also assists with the Youth Group at her church. Valerie also enjoys running. She has participated in many of the popular local races, including the Philly Half Marathon, Run the Bridge, and Broad Street. She has also done several triathlons, including the inaugural Queen of the Hill Sprint Tri and the Riverwinds Tri. However, most people know Valerie as the inspirational figure leading a fantastic philanthropy group for kids right here in Harrison Township.
Our Children Making Change
Valerie has been the Harrison Township Group Leader for Our Children Making Change for the past five summers. Our Children Making Change (OCMC) is an organization that allows children to raise money for charity through their own creative efforts. The group takes place over approximately 6 weeks of the summer so children (and parents) have time to devote to fundraising activities without the heavy schedules of the school year. By teaching children the value and power of philanthropy, kids learn they are never too small to make a big difference. Through this experience they also learn teamwork, creativity, social skills, public speaking, event planning, and financial management. They not only get the rewarding feeling of helping others, but also build confidence … all while having FUN.
Five years ago, Valerie was deep in the trenches of motherhood, raising four young boys, ages 2, 4, and 9. She had no knowledge of this grassroots group called OCMC as it was brand new and based solely in Margate at the time. Valerie’s husband worked in Egg Harbor Township and had learned of OCMC through a co-worker whose wife was the founder of the organization. When Valerie’s husband encouraged her to attend OCMC’s closing ceremony, she wasn’t completely thrilled with the idea. “My youngest was two,” she laughs “so, he kinda had to drag me there.” Once there, however, Valerie was not only impressed, but inspired.
“They had, like, 200 kids in their group,” she remembers. The kids ate pizza and enjoyed a magic show to celebrate their weeks of hard work and fundraising. What impacted Valerie most were the presentations given by the founder of OCMC and the speeches given by each charity as they received their check. She was deeply moved when a little girl was recognized by the group for donating every dime of her Bat Mitzvah money to charity. “I was in awe of the whole thing,” says Valerie. She decided right there that she would commit to starting a group in Harrison Township, and gave her word to the OCMC founder that night.
When the following summer rolled around, Valerie held true to her commitment. She had already done a little leg work. “I had walked around my neighborhood in the spring and had about 35 kids right away. I knew we could do this,” she says. That first year, the Harrison Township Group raised $8,500. Each year, their numbers grew, as did the dollar amount raised. Last summer, over 100 children participated in Valerie’s group and they raised $11,104 for four deserving charities. “The closing celebration each year always leaves a significant impact on me and why I invest time and energy into such a worthwhile cause — our children and the community they live in.” says Valerie. “I pray that after children participate in OCMC they walk away realizing they can make a difference in people’s lives and that it’s important to try. Each and every gift is important and completes our community.”
The premise of OCMC is quite simple. All the kids within a specific area, like Harrison Township, break down into smaller teams. These teams can be anywhere from 2 to 10 kids with one parent leader. These smaller units work with each other to raise money for the four selected charities. Each child is asked to make a personal pledge to raise $100. So, for instance, a group of 5 kids would have a goal of raising $500 for their team. They can do things like babysitting or dog walking or extra chores around the house. They often coordinate larger fundraisers such as yard sales, lemonade stands, and bake sales. The entire group of all hundred-plus children get together twice over the summer. Once is at the Kick Off meeting in late June where everyone gets their t-shirt and votes on the four charities that will be supported that summer . They reconvene a second time for the big end of the year bash where the checks are given to a representative of each charity and the kids are rewarded with a pizza party and other fun activities.
The charities are different every year and elected by the children. During the Kick Off Meeting, each team has the opportunity to present a charity that is close to their heart. After all groups present, the decision is made quite democratically by the children themselves. They vote for their top four and Valerie tallies up the four charities with the most votes. Having the children nominate a charity and present it to the group ends up being a great learning experience. It requires them to learn more about the organization, write a speech and practice public speaking. Once the charities are selected, the official fundraising period begins. Some groups get really creative and have events like GLOW Runs, huge Kick Ball Tournaments, or provide Singing Telegrams! With kids, there is no lack of imagination so the sky is the limit.
“The thing that has [made the] greatest impact on me is the way the children are able to use their gifts and talents,” says Valerie. “Some children that are athletic host a sports camp for children younger than them, or sponsor a run, or host a kickball tournament. Some with artistic abilities have sold their artwork for donations. Then they have gone on to become more accomplished in their art and have donated the proceeds to a specific charity near and dear to them. Others that are musically inclined have hosted block parties and accepted donations for their band playing. And still others may have the gift of hospitality and prepare food for their friends. Some are very business minded and are very good at organizing events and activities that will raise a significant amount of money. It truly is an outlet for all children to use their God given gifts to benefit others.”
As well as being a Group Leader, Valerie also sits on the Board of Directors for OCMC. They are on a mission to spread the word in the areas where they already have a presence and to encourage new groups in new states. OCMC now has groups peppered around the country, including Baltimore, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Boston, in addition to the two groups in New Jersey. In total, over 2,000 children have helped their communities by coming up with creative ideas, throwing fundraisers, and working hard with chores. Their collective efforts have raised over $300,000 for various charities… and counting.
Some of the non-profits for which OCMC has raised money include: HOPE for Atlantic City, Boys and Girls Club (local chapter), Ocean City Humane Society, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation – Greater Philadelphia Area Chapter, Make a Wish Foundation, Community Food Bank of New Jersey – Southern Branch, The Little Rock Foundation, Atlantic County Women’s Center, Habitat for Humanity, Wildlife Aid, Inc., The Lions Association for the Blind, Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation, ALS Foundation (local chapter), Hearts United Against Cancer, Kids Alley, The Special Olympics of South Jersey, The Cape May County Zoo, Stand for the Silent, The Alcover Center for Grieving Children, The Claudia Fund, The Tug McGraw Foundation, and The GSD Children’s Fund.
“I love giving children the opportunity to learn about charities in their local community, and a way for them to contribute significantly to those charities. These young children have raised almost $50,000 in the past 5 summers. I am in awe of what the young people in our community can do to make an impact.”
Originally, Valerie’s dreams were to be up in the air, but now her feet are planted firmly on the ground right here in the heart of Mullica Hill. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that she is exactly where she is meant to be, doing exactly what she is meant to do. And this town is all the better for it.
by: Alicia J. DiFabio, Psy.D.