When you meet Jamie Lynn Ridgely of Manchester, Md. (pop. 3,752), she appears to be like any 15-year-old. Her room is filled with posters of popular television stars; she loves the music of the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC; and you can find her in front of her computer, emailing friends any time of day.
What sets Jamie apart from most other 15-year-olds is that shes not spending her computer time chatting with friends. Shes busy setting up a network of teen volunteers who are helping the needy in communities across the United States. For her work, Jamie has been recognized nationally, receiving both seventeen magazines Covergirl Volunteerism Award and the Caring Institutes Young Adult National Caring Award for 1999.
What started as a canned goods drive with a little red wagon and her first assistant, her dog, Aladdin, has grown into a community effort involving hundreds of volunteers and thousands of canned goods, as well as a variety of services for those in need. At age 9, Jamie saw a television commercial about world hunger and asked her mother how she could help the children she saw. Her mother explained there were hungry children right in Manchester. Jamie says, I looked at the commercial and thought, if they can do it, why cant I.
She didnt waste any time getting organized, first collecting canned goods door-to-door in her neighborhood and expanding her collection sites to include her elementary school and a local supermarket. Her classmates enjoyed taking part, and Jamie made sure they had fun. Each week she gave a different colored ribbon that those volunteering their time could wear. Her classmates became repeat volunteers just to get the latest ribbon. Before she realized it, she had 1,000 cans to donate to a local food bank.
Since then, Jamie has collected coats, hats, and mittens for disadvantaged families; visited residents at a nursing home at Christmastime; and provided suitcases and toiletries for foster children. In addition, she has helped feed nearly 200 people for Thanksgiving and last year made more than 250 Easter baskets for area youngsters. Her organization, Helpful Hands, has evolved into helping people with multiple needs, the emotionally deprived (from loneliness or a sense of need, for instance) as well as the physically undernourished, reaching needy people of all ages.
Her parents, Sharon and Bryan Ridgely, never dreamed that Jamies interest would go beyond one or two food drives. Now her efforts are a family affair. It is an everyday thing, part of our life now, Jamie says.
Jamies mother answers her phone calls during the school day, and her father helps her collect and distribute items. Other parents follow their childrens interests, such as sports. This is what Jamie wants to do, and we support her in this, says her father.
Seeing their daughter mature and develop her passion for helping others is something that makes her parents proud. Her mother says, The more she does, the more enthusiastic she becomes. She can be around all ages, both the elderly and the young, and be at ease.
Jamies work never stops. With her website now active, she spends each day corresponding with teens across the country and has responded individually to more than 300 emails. In addition, Jamie has created instructive starter packets that give teens ideas for projects they can develop in their own communities. She now has directors committed to helping start grassroots efforts in six states.
The response has been overwhelming, Jamie says. I never expected to hear from so many teens who just want to know how they can get started in helping those that are less fortunate. She looks forward to seeing her passion for helping others spread throughout communities nationwide as she motivates the helpful hands of her many new volunteers.