Seven decades of age difference melted away with the warmth of the smiles on the faces of Betty Barch and the Williams sisters, as children mingled with the senior citizens at the summer carnival at the National Church Residences Center for Senior Health on the Northeast Side.
At one of the dozen or so activity stations, Stella Williams, 7, and Sadie Williams, 4, were bowling with plastic balls and pins alongside Barch, 77. The trio then moved on to use squirt guns to try to knock Ping-Pong balls off the top of 2-liter bottles.
The carnival was organized by Seeds of Caring, a nonprofit group founded two years ago by Clintonville resident Brandy Jemczura to encourage families with young children to get involved in service and community projects.
Hilliard resident Liz Williams, mother of Stella and Sadie, looked on in approval. This was the first Seeds of Caring event the family had attended.
“They’ve taken right to it, surprisingly so,” Williams said. “They’re bringing her balls to go bowling and they’re talking to her and they want to involve her.
“I figured they’d be in a corner, shy somewhere.”
The point of the carnival was to help children feel more comfortable around senior citizens, and also to experience the satisfaction of brightening the older folks’ day. It is part of Seeds of Caring’s larger goal of getting kids to view serving others as a lifelong value.
“I see it as so critical for kids to be exposed to service opportunities and community-building opportunities when they’re young,” Jemczura said, “so they don’t grow up and see service as something they have to do for a college application. It’s something they want to do because it’s been a part of their life and they have seen how it’s valued in their family.”
Seeds of Caring has clearly struck a chord, as evidenced by its rapid growth. In two years the group put on 130 events, ranging from packing lunches at soup kitchens to trash cleanup days to singalongs with the developmentally disabled, and totaled more than 6,000 hours of service.
Boo Krucky is an activities coordinator at Goodwill Columbus, which provides programming for adults with developmental disabilities. Seeds of Caring is a regular visitor to the group’s Grandview Heights center. “Every single thing we’ve done with them has just been phenomenal, a really high-quality experience for everyone involved,” Krucky said. Jemczura’s “heart is so much in the right place.”
Service has always been a part of Jemczura’s life. Growing up in Columbus, the Bishop Watterson graduate said her mother brought her children along when volunteering for the Salvation Army.
Jemczura met her future husband, Tomasz, while both attended Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. The school requires that students participate in community service, Tomasz said. “One of the things I love about Brandy is her dedication to doing good things for people,” he said. “And she’s so good with kids, she has an amazing talent to make a connection with kids.
“Back in college, all our friends thought Brandy would save the world one child at a time.”
They married in 2007. Jemczura worked as a middle-school teacher and in social work before the couple had children (Eliot, 7, Lucy, 5, and Maya, 1). The impetus for Seeds of Caring came from wanting to involve their children in volunteering.
“Volunteering was such an integral part of my life, and then when kids came along I thought, `I want it to be a central part of their lives,’ but there wasn’t opportunity out there,” Brandy said. “So many opportunities exclude kids younger than 12, which I understand why.
“But kids have such big hearts and they have so much to give. I looked at my own children and I saw how they could make eyes with someone, a senior in the grocery store, and it just makes their whole day.
“And I thought, `There are so many families out there that want to do good things. . . . and they want to do them with their kids. How do we make this happen?’”
What inspires her: A desire to keep volunteering after she had children, even though many organizations don’t allow kids 12 or younger to volunteer.
What keeps her engaged: The growth of the group and the examples she has seen in which children clearly have absorbed the lessons of community service. Jemczura tells the story of an event in which they talked to kids about acting on something they cared about. “After that, a little girl wrote a letter to the mayor saying there weren’t many playgrounds for kids who are disabled, and maybe Columbus should think more about that,” she said. “I feel really grateful and honored to be part of this.”
A challenge she has overcome: Lack of sleep, as she began Seeds of Caring in 2016 with two children and gave birth to a third, daughter Maya, a year ago. Her husband, Tomas, said, “We have no budget for childcare and she’s not willing to give up time with her kids, anyway. So she is juggling being a wonderful mom, which she is, with running an amazing organization.”
Initially, Jemczura said the focus was on creating opportunities for parents of young children to volunteer together. The group’s mission statement has shifted slightly since then, she said, to emphasize making service an integral part of kids’ lives. The target age group is 2 to 12.
“We don’t want it to be about, `Let’s go do this nice little thing one time,’” she said, “but rather, we want kids to think that they can change what they don’t like about their community.
“And I think they have to have those messages when they’re young, otherwise they might feel disempowered when they grow up.”
The group’s philosophy is summed up by T-shirts many volunteers wear to events. On the front it reads, “Kind is Cool,” and on the back is printed, “Transforming the Columbus community one kid at a time.”
Jemczura relies on a team of about 30 other parents who serve as event leaders. Parents can find events and sign up on the group’s website, seedsofcaring.org. The group currently puts on six to eight events a month.
True to her background in education, Jemczura makes sure each event includes a take-home element—typically, activities or discussion questions so that parents can reinforce the experience.
Jamie Merz, a Westerville mother of two, is an event leader and calls Jemczura, “a great leader.”
“She is so awesome and so organized,” Merz said. “We meet a couple times a year, all the event leaders, and she has a binder, and we go through everything, like what to say and how to structure on event.
“But then she also is super open to other people’s ideas. She’s very encouraging and she’s really into having a team atmosphere.”
Tomasz, who works in the banking industry, said he marvels at his wife’s dedication to Seeds of Caring.
“She works many nights,” he said. “The kids will go to sleep around 8 and she stays up to midnight or 1 a.m. four or five nights a week. It takes a toll on her.”
Jemczura said it’s worth it, though.
“Our volunteer leaders do so much and it’s such a team effort, so I can’t take sole credit,” she said. “But when I step back and look at everything that happens on a monthly basis, and the kids’ lives that have been impacted and the organizations that have benefited, I really feel grateful and honored to be part of this.”