"It's nesting season! All the birds are going to die," I exclaimed, feeling helpless as I watched my 11-year-old daughter Olivia push away her dinner and sob uncontrollably. It was late April, and we had just gotten off the phone with Olivia's grandfather in Alabama. He had shared the grim news about the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which had started three days earlier. A bird lover and frequent visitor to the Gulf of Mexico's coast, Olivia knew the imminent threat the oil posed to wildlife, especially birds.
For the remainder of dinner, our family of four brainstormed ways we could help. As a teacher, I always tell students they can make a difference, and my daughter is no exception to this sentiment. Olivia decided to sell drawings of birds and donate the money to the Audubon Society. Ornithologist John James Audubon became her hero when we visited the Audubon House in Key West in February. With determination, Olivia wrote to Audubon about her idea in a letter she signed, "11 years old and willing to help."
That line struck a chord with my husband, who turned to me after reading the letter and said, "Shouldn't we all be willing to help?" It was that moment that secured our support for Olivia's fundraising efforts. Little did we know how quickly Olivia's campaign would grow.
After contacting the wonderful people at the Audubon Society and sharing Olivia's letter with them, our family made some changes to Olivia's plan. Instead of selling her drawings or collecting any money ourselves, we simply asked people to make a donation to one of five different organizations doing wildlife recovery in the Gulf. If they e-mailed their donation receipt and mailing address to us, Olivia would send them one of her hand-drawn pictures. It seemed easy enough, so we capped the original drawings at 500, a number we thought we'd never reach.
Friends, family and colleagues began to make donations, and the drawings were sent. To spread the word, we created Olivia's Facebook fan page, titled Save the Gulf: Olivia's Bird Illustrations. It quickly gained a following and generated even more donations.
"The response was flabbergasting," Olivia says of her campaign. "I started doing drawings first thing in the morning, which was easy for me because I get up early anyway."
Olivia's story began to circulate on blogs, then in newspapers, and it eventually caught the attention of mainstream media. From there, donations continued to pick up, and the Facebook page grew. AOL noticed. The Internet company thought Olivia's cause was a perfect combination of art and philanthropy. It offered Olivia her own artist project page, where her work would rub elbows with that of contemporary artists worldwide.
"I didn't realize I would be included with real artists," Olivia says. "I just thought it would be a little link or something."
Leaps away from providing a "little link," AOL sent in a $25,000 donation on Olivia's behalf and took the project to a new level. The first 500 drawings had been quickly accounted for, so we worked with AOL to set up limited edition prints. This way, everyone could have a piece of Olivia's artwork.
Since Olivia's AOL artist page opened, it has generated more than $155,000— not including AOL's donation— and brought about all sorts of media attention. CNN, Larry King Live, CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, People magazine and Newsday are just some of the media outlets that have showcased Olivia's project. The outpouring of support and generosity from people around the globe has been overwhelming, often bringing our family to tears.
Although this has been a phenomenal experience, my husband and I became concerned as parents about how all the attention would influence Olivia. Torn between being supportive and protective, we decided to ask Olivia how she felt about her newfound celebrity status. Olivia is unruffled.
"It's kind of weird that people know who I am now," she says, "but I didn't do it for that. I did it to help the birds." Comforted by her response, we've moved forward.
Our next step is to teach both Olivia and her 6-year-old brother Jackson about our civic duty and the political process. It's important to Olivia that wildlife habitats be protected, and our whole family agrees that we'd like to see America use cleaner energy sources. We've decided to make a trip to Washington, D.C., to let our representatives in the U.S. Congress know how our family feels.
Throughout the trajectory of this experience, it has been a challenge as a family to navigate through uncharted waters. However, what gives us a compass is that, like Olivia, we are willing to help.