11/29/13 — Youth puts helping others at the top of his list

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Youth puts helping others at the top of his list

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 29, 2013 1:46 PM

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Benjamin Stevens, 9, fills baskets with treats for Kitty Askins Hospice Center that he bought with money that he has raised. Benjamin started the effort over the summer, asking for donations instead of birthday presents.

Benjamin Stevens had a very short wish list for his birthday this year.

The Northwest Elementary School third-grader turned 9 on Sept. 28, and as the date approached, he spread the word among friends and family.

"I told people that I didn't want any presents and to bring food for Kitty Askins," he said.

But first he shared the idea with his mother, Jennifer Stevens.

"He said, 'I have a lot of toys. I want to help people. For my birthday, can we just ask people to bring (money or food)?'" she said.

In some respects, the notion was not a complete surprise to Mrs. Stevens. As a teacher at Edgewood Community Developmental School, she said she is involved in a lot of fundraisers and has often taken donations out to Kitty Askins. The family -- which also includes husband, Kevin, and daughter, Sarah Beth, 6 -- is also very active at First Pentecostal Holiness Church and participates in a lot of community service efforts.

"He just has a servant's heart," she said of her son. "He's very compassionate."

That became evident early on, in response to a family tragedy. When Benjamin was only 4, his uncle, Allen Pearson, a Lenoir County Sheriff's detective, was killed in the line of duty.

"When my brother-in-law died, it changed all of us," Mrs. Stevens said. "It really affected (Benjamin). He became very compassionate and in tune with people's needs. Everything he does, he thinks about others."

The birthday request went over well.

"Some people brought stuff," Benjamin said. "And some brought stuff and got me presents."

In addition to cases of bottled water, packaged snacks and fruit, the effort generated a bit of cash, which Benjamin used to purchase even more provisions to donate to the hospice center.

But it didn't stop there. He decided that the families of patients shouldn't have to worry about what they would be eating during the holidays, so he would extend it through Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Friends and family also upped the ante, with some pledging to send him money every month to continue the gift stream. His grandmother, Sue Woodyard, has a baking business on the side since retiring as an educator.

"He's buying cookies from her," Mrs. Stevens said. In turn, Mrs. Woodyard is setting up "Benjamin's Basket" wherever she sells her wares, collecting donations for her grandson's cause.

Benjamin also initiated contact with several area restaurants to generate food donations, with his mother interceding for a teachable moment.

"I wanted him to understand that it's OK to get donations, but not everything will be given -- he has to work for it," Mrs. Stevens said. "You don't want to get everything for free. We want to give him a sense of the importance of money and how to match it."

In the months since, Benjamin and his family have become a familiar sight at Kitty Askins, dropping off food and restocking the center's family room.

"I don't know if he has been quite able to process it," his mother said. "I think he's excited because he loves to help."

To Benjamin, the feeling he gets from the effort can be described in one word -- "joyful."

"My grandma and my grandpa told me it was a good idea to do it," he said. "They said it's very special. I decided to keep doing it."

Unlike some of her peers, who might embark on such a project for a badge or a prize, Benjamin's motivation is much more personal.

The reward, he said, "is seeing people doing nice things for other people."

"My uncle died about five years ago," he said. "I just wanted to help people who are getting ready to die and help their families."

He said he has aspirations of becoming a policeman, like his uncle, when he grows up.

In the meantime, his effort to minister to others going through hospice are not going any time soon.

"I'm going to try to keep this going," he said. "I was thinking of getting money so I could buy stuff, make bracelets and sell them for $5."

His mom and dad admit they are especially proud of their son.

"I think as a parent, a lot of times you're constantly second-guessing yourself -- are we doing everything right?" Mrs. Stevens said. "We have him in church, we have him involved. And then when your child comes up and says this is what I want for my birthday, it kind of validates that we're doing something right."

"For a 9-year-old little boy, he's got a big heart," his dad said.