2011 Family of the Year
Now in its second year, the Family of the Year contest celebrates families across the country for their efforts to give back to the community and make a difference in the lives of others. When you read about the Athanases on the next few pages, we think you’ll agree that Peter and Erika and their children, Izak (12) and Eli (6), are the cream of this year’s remarkable crop of American families who entered the contest.
Our celebrity ambassadors for the contest, husband and wife William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman, are as thrilled as we are about the Athanas family’s work. “They recognized a need for activities in their community that give back that were also child-friendly,” says Huffman. “They didn’t exist, so they created them. That is courage and perseverance magically turned into healing.” Adds Macy, “It’s so cool; we friended them on Facebook right away.” For helping us spread the word, we say thanks, Felicity and Bill!
For the Athanas family, it all began in 2009 . . .
Erika Athanas recalls the moment she realized that a simple afternoon of volunteering could turn into something really big. She had just finished a few hours organizing school supplies for children in need with her friend, Katie Goldman, and their kids. After posting photos of the event on a Facebook page that she and Katie created, it hit her that if she could match lots of other families who want to help with charities in need of manpower, she’d have something special. “It was like a lightbulb went off in my head,” says the 40-year-old Los Angeles mom. “I said to myself, ‘I can do this!’”
Flash forward from that August 2009 day: Erika has built something special. Along with Katie, she founded 4Good, a virtual community where hundreds of families in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley are updated regularly via website, Facebook, e-mail, blog, Twitter, and e-newsletter on easy ways the whole family can get out and give back. Erika, who is trained in marketing, handles the bulk of the planning and workload for 4Good, and every month or so, she and her husband, Peter, and their two sons, Izak and Eli, participate in a charitable event as a family themselves.
All the Right Reasons
Erika’s desire to give back predates 4Good. It started when she and Peter, a 45-year-old business consultant who works for a nonprofit, realized they wanted to add another dimension to their sons’ lives. As Peter puts it, “We wanted to walk the walk.” Erika explains, “Living in Los Angeles, our children are exposed to very extravagant lifestyles. We just wanted to make sure that we were keeping them aware of other things that we felt were important. It’s our job as parents to bring up good men who will treat everyone around them with a kind and considerate heart.”
Trouble was, finding the right venue to go and do some good as a family was not so easy. Many causes that appealed to Erika and Peter seemed inappropriate for children. “I wanted to lend a hand to suicide prevention,” says Peter, “but I didn’t want to expose our kids to that.” The couple considered helping out at soup kitchens, but they felt that the hardcore substance abusers who frequented them would frighten a preschooler, which Eli was at the time.
Despite their hesitance, and the fact that neither Peter, who grew up in Worcester, MA, as the son of a business owner and homemaker, nor Erika, raised in the San Fernando Valley by a TV director dad and a dental hygienist mom, had a history of community service, they were determined to start a new tradition with their family. “I kind of get caught up sometimes in the trappings of life,” admits Peter, who is a passionate drummer in his spare time. “I get caught up with TV and messages through the media. I don’t think they’re the right messages for our kids. So I need to combat that somehow. I felt the way to do it was to show them that we can have a hand in improving the lives of less fortunate people.”
Starting with a Bang
With these thoughts percolating, Erika and Katie began looking for charitable activities they could do with their kids. They searched online, made calls, and finally honed in on Friends and Helpers, a local nonprofit that aids women and children fleeing abusive homes. Every summer the group sponsors an event in which donated school supplies are sorted into backpacks. Armed with $200 worth of items from a 99-cent store, Erika and her two boys and Katie with her oldest daughter, Rosalind, then 4, showed up for their first group experience in community service. “It was AH-mazing to see the kids,” says Erika. “They were packing pencil cases and thought it was the greatest thing.”
The moms also loved it. “We just looked at each other and said, this is it,” Katie says. What still bugged them, however, was how long it took to find this one family-friendly activity. Figuring others had the same frustrations, Erika and Katie sat down and created their Facebook group called 4Good, a place to show more people in their circle of friends what they were doing.
On a Roll
In short order, Erika had her epiphany about taking 4Good bigger, and with expert advice from Katie and her husband, Jeff, who both work for nonprofits, in two years she has grown 4Good into its current state. The Athanases work to invisibly gather a virtual 4Good community, now roughly 2,000 moms, dads, and kids who use modern social media to practice old-school charity. (At press time, 4Good was awaiting notification of its official status as nonprofit.)
The 4Gooders have continued their partnership with Friends and Helpers to buy school supplies and holiday gifts for abused families. They volunteered with Heal the Bay to clean beaches, held a concert to benefit Education through Music, a group that brings music classes to underfunded Los Angeles schools, and helped at a food pantry.
The winning formula? Among the vast number of community service listings in the big city, 4Good ferrets out the ones that meet its criteria and then tells its audience where to show up, aiming to make community service as simple as scheduling a haircut. “It has to be easy and convenient for families,” Erika notes. Dates and times are posted on the website, tweeted, and highlighted in the newsletter. Often, 4Good simply passes along another group’s event, such as the Save the Bay cleanup. But it also actively coordinates with charities to plan events, such as the Education through Music benefit. Erika, who works part time outside the home as a product developer, vets everything to make sure children are welcome and will be comfortable with the experience. The system has allowed 4Good to get involved in a lot of different ways. “If you give a little bit to a lot of things, you can make, I think, an even bigger difference,” Erika says.
They’ve been encouraged at every turn. “When we did an event,” Peter says, “people were asking about 4Good. People were signing up right there and then.” And the idea of including the youngest helpers is working. Early on in 2009, Eli Athanas took particular notice when 4Good turned in pounds and pounds of recycled cans and bottles to raise money for holiday gifts for Friends and Helpers. “I liked getting all that money to give to the people who don’t have that much money, because I’m making them happy,” the kindergartner says. “And I feel really good because of that.” That year, he asked that some of his (November) birthday gifts be given to Friends and Helpers. His parents obliged and birthday party guests brought a small present for Eli and a cash donation or gift card for the nonprofit.
When 4Good visited a food pantry last fall and sorted bags of groceries, Rosalind Goldman, by then 6, was in the zone. “The activity they were doing matched her skills and her interests,” says Katie. And Rosalind and the other kids got the message. “They understood that people need food and can’t always afford it and that they can come to this place and get food for free,” says Katie, who serves with her husband on the board of 4Good and participates in as many events as possible.
Erika says she set up 4Good to help her kids understand the concepts of citizenship and sharing with those less fortunate, but there has been a fringe benefit. “You get to spend time with your family free of all the electronics and all the things that kind of make us crazy during the day.”
All involved say that Erika, with a healthy dose of support from Peter, is the driving force. She gives about 20 hours a week to the effort, researching charities and setting up events, and she’s invested $1,200 of the family’s own money for various costs along the way. “I just happen to have that personality. If I’m in the middle of doing something, I can’t rest until whatever it is is done,” she admits. By necessity she has become a digital diva, learning her way around websites, e-newsletters, and Twitter. “I’ve grown so much,” she says.
It’s not always easy balancing a part-time job, additional freelance work, her family, and 4Good, but Erika’s mother, Judi, who lives nearby, helps with school runs, and Peter’s mom, Gloria, also pitches in by coming in from Massachusetts for extended visits.
Erika’s advice for those who want to start their own organization like 4Good is to use social media — and lots of it. She recommends “piggybacking” (a word she loves) on existing nonprofits to make the biggest difference. For instance, last spring she was shocked after a friend gave her a magazine article that said some lower-income children have no books at home. “They get to school having never held printed matter,” she says incredulously. Determined to help, she found BookEnds, a local group that collects gently used books and redistributes them to organizations serving at-risk youth. She then tweeted, blogged, and e-mailed about a 4Good book drive to be hosted at a yoga shop. One afternoon later, 4Good had 1,503 books for BookEnds.
4Good’s next big event is the second annual BookEnds book drive on June 5. (Details about exact location were still being finalized at the time this issue went to press.) It’s Izak Athanas’s favorite 4Good cause. He chooses books from his own library to give away and stays all day at the donation site, organizing the contributions by genres. “It’s really fun,” he says. His dad adds, “Doing this makes me feel like I’m a better parent. I think we can all use that.” And Mom gets the last word, “It’s not what you do for a living, but how you live.”WE ARE FAMILY
P&C salutes these three Family of the Year entrants for making a difference in the lives of others
Las Vegas, NV
Daughters Heather (17) and Lexie (7) came to mom Tammy and grandmother Barbara through foster care. “Though my daughters are biologically unrelated,” says Tammy, “they have become related in so many more ways.” The family makes birthday presents for other foster children and helps them create scrapbooks, as many have few photos of themselves.
Fort Worth, TX
When 8-year-old Will spotted a homeless man with a “need a meal” sign last year, he asked his parents how to help. Over the summer, the Lourceys collected 2,000 cans of food for the local food bank — helping to provide more than 31,000 meals. Will also started a group called FROGS (Friends Reaching Our Goals) to get other neighborhood kids involved.
The Gunnells volunteered to host a baby from Haiti in need of life-saving surgery last year. They fell in love with baby Chrisno, who suffered from hydrocephalus, and adopted him. Now, the family raises funds and awareness for Angel Missions Haiti, a nonprofit that provides free medical care to Haitian children. Seven-year-old Drake Gunnell even wrote (with Mom’s help) a children’s book called My Little Brother Chrisno about adoption; all proceeds from book sales go to the nonprofit.
Maria Speidel is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. She is a former People magazine reporter.