Sometimes it's the simple things that make a big difference. You don't need a lot of money or time, you just need an idea and a plan. Start with what you love, then figure out a way to use it to help others. This holiday season will find many families coming together to do just that. Here are four people who are making a difference in Chicago in their own way. Know someone else who is making a difference and inspires you? Share their story in the comments below.
It started, more or less, with cream cheese, crackers and sunflower seeds.
"I like putting crazy things together and eating it," explains 9-year-old Carson Pazdan. "That's fun."
Before long, Carson's mother, Alyssa Pazdan, gave Carson, who was around 5 when he began showing interest in cooking, even more room for culinary experimentations.
Cream cheese, it seemed, became a bit of a staple in his arsenal.
Eventually, the play apron and chef's hat Carson wore spawned an idea.
Carson took to crayons and computer paper.
Its recipes would be "for kids by kids," he says.
But what happened next would eclipse even the satisfaction an amateur chef feels having delivered a perfectly cooked risotto.
Alyssa spread the word: her family needed recipes.
A half dozen school districts from as far south as Frankfort to as far north as Lake Zurich got involved. Churches and after-school programs, too.
Hundreds of kids and their families submitted hundreds of submissions.
"Everybody just jumped on board," Alyssa says.
Then one day a truck arrived in front of the Pazdans' Barrington home to deliver pallets full of 2,000 copies of the hardcover, 350-page cookbook. It was called Kids Feeding Kids-and it became a nonprofit organization.
In no time, and with printing costs taken off the top, Carson presented the Northern Illinois Food Bank with a $21,000 check-enough to provide 10,000 meals to hungry children throughout 13 counties around the Chicagoland area.
It wouldn't stop there.
In November, Kids Feeding Kids held a sold out red carpet fundraiser to raise awareness of childhood hunger. It raised more than $17,000.
"Our message for (the kids) is that they have the magic within them to make a difference," Alyssa says.
For more information on Kids Feeding Kids, visit kidsfeedingkids.info.
In late October, 8-year-old Nick Curley laced up his skates for one last mile.
He did it before a crowd of 3,800 in between periods of a Chicago Wolves minor league hockey game.
And just like that, Nick had skated 100 miles, most of it backward (he's a defenseman by training; they're used to that sort of thing).
And he did it all to raise awareness and $25,000 for Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP), a syndrome that kills an estimated 50,000 people in the U.S. each year.
How does a kid even know that exists?
"Because my cousin has the same disease Danny did," Nick explained the day after completing his 100-mile trek, which he began when he was 7. "And Danny died."
Danny Stanton, whom Nick never knew, died when he 4.
His seizures mostly came at night.
His parents never knew one of them could kill him.
"We didn't believe this could happen," says Mike Stanton, Danny's father. "Because we didn't know it could happen."
On Dec. 12, 2009, the day Danny died, his parents, still in shock, were on their way, unbeknownst, to founding a nonprofit in Danny's name to raise awareness of the potentially lethal disorder.
"The goal of the Danny Did Foundation is creating a community where people feel like they're a part of it and not feel alone," Mike says.
The Evanston police officer and Chicago resident admits he still harbors anger for his son's death, which he said was preventable. But his organization has raised nearly $1 million so far and has provided more than 140 devices that detect seizure-like motion in children while they sleep.
The long-term goal now is to get FDA approval of the device, which was created in Europe.
Laura Curley, the mother of the do-gooder hockey player, says the focus shouldn't be on her son.
"This is not about a 7-year-old who skated 100 miles," she says. "This is about a 4-year-old who never got a chance."
For more information on SUDEP and the Danny Did Foundation, visit dannydid.org.
Linda Mastandrea, a disability law attorney in Chicago, has some big goals for Variety of Illinois, a Chicago-based charity for children facing physical and mental needs as well as social and economic challenges.
The charity brings in about $250,000 in donations each year, Mastandrea says. "I would like to make it $2 million a year."
And though Variety offers programs and services to all children in need, Mastandrea, who was born with cerebral palsy and requires the use of a wheelchair, is making physical needs her focus.
"Kids being kids want to fit in," she says. "Kids with disabilities, by definition, are different in some way. But by providing a young boy with a bike, it doesn't matter that it's an adaptive bike, he's riding a bike."
But adaptive sports equipment is expensive, ranging between $2,000 and $6,000, a prohibitive cost for many Chicago area families.
Last year, the charity spent $60,000 and provided 30 children with special needs adaptive equipment, like specially constructed bicycles and wheelchairs.
"My goal really is to get us to a place where we can spend several hundred thousand on things like that," she says.
It's as much a personal goal as it is a professional one.
It wasn't until college that Mastandrea began using a wheelchair and using it to play basketball.
Eventually, she would go on to become a Paralympian, breaking world and national records in wheelchair track and field, collecting 15 gold and five silver medals.
"I grew up interested in physical activity, but I never knew I could play," she says. "That's why it's so near and dear to me."
For more information on Variety, visit varietyofillinois.org.
In 2006, Congress passed the Combating Autism Act, pumping nearly $1 billion in research funding for autism spectrum disorders over the next five years.
That kind of political and financial support was unprecedented, says Alan Rosenblatt, a neurodevelopmental pediatrician in Skokie, who has been working with patients affected by autism for 25 years.
And today, along with Paul Carbone, a physician in Utah specializing in autism, Rosenblatt has edited a very readable and concise guide: Autism Spectrum Disorder: What Every Parent Needs To Know.
"One of things that has been most gratifying is recognizing how much progress we've made in my own professional lifetime," says Rosenblatt, who also teaches pediatric residents at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
Published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the guide is a resource for parents of children along the autism spectrum, covering everything from early detection and diagnoses to education and employment opportunities for children and young adults with autism.
The 320-page soft cover book is divided into 15 chapters, beginning with a brief history on autism and ending with a chapter on advocacy.
Throughout, the writing is broken up by smaller, more accessible information boxes and offers resource avenues parents can seek to supplement the readings.
What it boils down to for Rosenblatt is awareness, which, he says, leads to early detection.
"That will increase the sophistication of treatment," Rosenblatt says.
One in 88 children and one in 54 boys has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the most recent estimates provided by the Centers for Disease Control.
But before a diagnosis, parents often are the first line of defense in detection.
Rosenblatt says young children with autism spectrum disorder might exhibit unusual language development or social skill deficits.
A child's pediatrician can offer a preliminary screening and recommend a more in-depth evaluation.
But autism is "superficially covered in medical school," Rosenblatt said. "Hopefully this particular book can inform medical school students."