The Fresh Faces of Philanthropy

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009

Camera crews swiveled their lenses and a crowd of a few hundred teenagers cheered when they saw Zach Bonner stride toward the White House, the final steps of a 650-mile fundraising walk to help homeless children.

There was a pause, though, before the hero's welcome, and a brief detour: He had to use the bathroom.

Zach is, after all, just a kid. At 11, he's one of cadre of child philanthropists who seem to be growing in number and visibility as corporations and colleges reward their efforts to help others.

Zach started his own nonprofit organization four years ago after a hurricane hit Florida. He asked his mother if they could donate their water bottles, and he gathered more from neighbors, an earnest little redheaded boy pulling his red wagon behind him. By the end, they had 27 truckloads of aid.

It was such a simple, innocent symbol of kindness that lots of people wanted to help. The Little Red Wagon Foundation kept growing.

And it got less simple. Somewhere along the road, Zach's little red wagon turned into an 18-wheeler.

Now a Los Angeles publicist with Prada glasses promotes Zach's walks to the media. Camera crews and photographers run backward when Zach approaches, scrambling to film his small steps. Zach has met three presidents and was invited to President George W. Bush's farewell address this winter. Last night, he was scheduled to visit Elton John at his concert at Nationals Park and accept a $25,000 check. And an Emmy-award winning journalist, Michael Guillen, is making a $5 million film about the Little Red Wagon.

When Guillen told him that the Philanthropy Project was going to make a movie about him, Zach dropped his head and cried a little, Guillen said. "He said, 'But I'm so small.' "

Not anymore.

Children's faces have long been used to promote fundraising campaigns for March of Dimes, muscular dystrophy and other causes. But now they aren't just poster children anymore; some -- although no one tracks how many -- have become high-profile CEOs of their own nonprofit groups.

Timothy Hwang and Minsoo Han, rising seniors at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, started their organization, Operation Fly, when they were 14. They raise money through tutoring -- charging much less than the market rate -- and use the money to distribute blankets, clothing and soap to Washington's homeless people. Operation Fly has spread to five cities, with 800 volunteers, and is entirely student-run.

What they are doing goes far beyond the kind of volunteering that an increasing number of young people engage in. Young philanthropists devote hundreds of hours to their causes, making appeals many donors find irresistible even in tough economic times.

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