Giving back can be a way of life, but Robin Steele of Cheerful Givers said she has sympathy for donors who want to see the positive impact of their charity rather than just blindly writing checks.
In 1993, the Minnesota native told The Huffington Post, "I went to a food pantry that a friend of a friend ran out of their home, to check it out and see what the needs of the community are. I was kind of young and I was like, 'Wow, you know, when people don't have money for food, they don't have money for anything."
She learned that the food pantry tried to provide boxed cakes for parents who wanted to celebrate their children's birthdays, but didn't always have the means. When boxed cakes ran out, the child might receive a favorite cereal or canned food item instead.
"I was like, 'Can you say that again?' I just couldn't comprehend it," Steele said. "Every child deserves a happy birthday."
She decided to make gift bags filled with toys, trinkets and other goodies. That night, a woman transferred three times on the bus to get to the pantry for a boxed cake.
"She went right to the boxed cakes and it was empty and she started to cry," Steele said. "Then the worker there went and got my birthday bags. She just sobbed and said, 'I prayed the whole way here there'd be something for my daughter for her birthday and I never imagined it would be so beautiful.' My first birthday bag was the answer to someone's prayer. It brought back the cheer to giving for me."
That year, Steele spent $5,000 of her own savings to get Cheerful Givers off the ground.
"It used to be a real mom and pop-ish kind of thing -- we'd make the gift bags ourselves and drive them out to the different food pantries that wanted them," she said. In the past 17 years, Cheerful Givers has grown to over 3,000 volunteers a year, and has given out gift bags to more than 380,000 kids since then, by her count.
For Steele, giving is a family tradition. "I always heard stories from my grandma about her grandpa who owned two businesses in a small town," she said. "He would be Santa Claus and buy gifts for all the kids in town. He'd get the horse and buggy and take out all the toys to all these poor kids."
Steele said her circumstances are not extraordinary, but she realized she was still fortunate enough to be able to help others. "We have so much and so many people have so little," she said. "The little we can give can go a long way."
And the work, she said, has provided her as much as she has given to it.
"Because of Cheerful Givers and because I gave my heart to them now I have a legacy," she said. "It's amazing how when you reach out and do something for others that it comes back to you. I can close my eyes and see the smiles of all these children that have really made my life full."
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