When it comes to serving the community, it can be easy to think that there’s no place for children. Ashley Bohanan, executive director of the Eugene nonprofit Little Hands Can, disagrees.
“A few years ago, I was talking to my oldest son, then 4, about children who live without the security of regular meals, toys, clothing, and even homes,” she says. “He started gathering toys, clothes, and books, and piled them into a box to give to ‘other boys who need them.’ This kind gesture by someone so small made me recognize children’s innate helpfulness.”
In 2018, Little Hands Can founders Miriam Clark and Mandi Vance passed the reins to Bohanan and current managing director Rachel Henderson. A speech/language pathologist and mother of two boys, Bohanan has learned to look beyond children’s challenges and see their strengths. When people do this, she says, they find that children are incredibly caring and capable.
“It is easy to fall into a pattern of believing children need us to do things for them or that they aren’t capable of doing big things themselves,” Bohanan says. “Children have a desire to please and do things for others, curiosity and interest in new experiences, excellent powers of observation, and a desire to be like their parents and caretakers. These positive natural traits make children the perfect population to serve others.”
Since its founding in 2015, Little Hands Can has been offering service opportunities to Eugene and Springfield families through four programs: City Stewards, Happy Helpers, Learning Leaders, and Kindness Camp. They’ve also recently added Young Yogis Services, which combines mindfulness through yoga and community service. Local kids and families have logged more than 5,200 volunteer hours through Little Hands Can, completed more than 255 community service projects, and collaborated with more than 50 local and national organizations.
Over the years, service opportunities have included helping out at a local retirement facility, cleaning up parks, planting flowers, working with animals, assembling school kits for refugee children, and preparing Christmas dinner for the unhoused at the Eugene Mission.
“You would be surprised at the huge range of tasks that even very tiny children are able to successfully complete,” Bohanan says. “Children as young as a year old have done painting, gardening, cleaning, art, packing, sorting, kit-building, dog-toy making, and food preparation projects, just to name a few.”
Younger children can focus on simpler tasks, and older children step up to bigger or more complex challenges. “They really can make a huge difference, despite being young and small,” Bohanan says.
The City Stewards program sits at the heart of Little Hands Can’s community service projects. Offered at least twice a month in conjunction with various local charities and organizations, City Stewards projects are free and open to children of all ages.
“Our ‘Paint the Whale’ event in June brought over 200 people to Skinner’s Butte Park to paint,” Bohanan says. “These events are so much fun because the kids can see the immediate difference they are making in our community. People walking by commented on the fun colors and designs the children created. For the next year, thousands of people will get to enjoy what we created together.”
Through interaction and hands-on activities, children gain a broader perspective of the world, understand how their work and efforts can be part of improving their community, and potentially become kinder and more compassionate. Bohanan says Little Hands Can also focuses on engaging kids through their own interests and passions.
“The more we can cater to a child’s interests, the more long-lasting their love of caring for others will be,” Bohanan says. “As they grow, they will better understand and believe that helping and caring for others is not only important as an individual, but important for businesses and business leaders as well.”
Little Hands Can plans to continue expanding their programs. From September through mid-June, the Happy Helpers program will give preschool-aged children a chance to engage in service activities.
“Service learning is extremely powerful and important,” Bohanan says. “I love that Little Hands Can teaches community members that service doesn’t have to be a chore or just a requirement to put on a college application. Service is, and should be, inspiring, empowering, doable, and, most of all, enjoyable!”
Little Hands Can