Downey, Calif. -- Quite often, kids from elementary school to college found themselves waking up at 5 a.m. on Saturdays to go and volunteer for a good cause with no complaints at all, just a smile on their face.
Last year, those kids created fundraising activities that raised $3,000 for the American Cancer Society. They worked to change park smoking laws in Downey, they have done graffiti cleanups, and they have fed the homeless in downtown L.A. -- as well as having painted schools in Compton.
In total, more than 400 local students from ages 9 to 19, volunteered 12,000 hours in 2012 and have served and continue serving their own community and beyond. They call themselves the KIWIN'S and are part of the Downey Kiwanis Club.
This club is one of the oldest organizations operating in Downey helping youth, but never before has the children, teenagers and young adults been more involved with the organization's principles than today.
Downey Unified School teacher, Alexander Gaytan, is a member of the "noon" Kiwanis Club in Downey and is the driving force behind all of these programs. He said the club's goal is to instill the value of volunteerism in students, and at the same time show them the importance of what it means to be a part of the Kiwanis International organization.
"The purpose of these programs is to get the children involved as young as elementary school level to value the importance of volunteer work in the community they live in," said Gaytan. "As a Kiwanis member, we want all the kids to develop their leadership skills but also to have good grades, so when they graduate from college, they will come back as a Kiwanis member and continue the work for new generations."
So far, the organization relies mainly on its members' volunteerism, good hearts and open wallets. Today it has at least seven youth clubs that are supervised by Gaytan, including K-Kids, the BUG Program, Green Team, Builders Club, the Downey KIWIN'S and Circle K. He also supports the Key Clubs in Downey and Lakewood.
Clive Graham, former lieutenant governor of Div. 13 of the California, Nevada and Hawaii District in 2011-12, and a Kiwanis member since 1982, gives all the credit to Gaytan and the Kiwanis Club for "taking Kiwanis to the next level."
"I attribute the increase in activity, membership, projects and community participation in the Kiwanis-branded Service Leadership Programs in Downey and surrounding areas to the outreach efforts of and the rapport that Alexander Gaytan has established with the youth," Graham said.
"As a dedicated teacher, with his motivation and drive, and with the backing of his Kiwanis Club of Downey (noon group), and a number of the other Kiwanis Clubs in the Div. 13 area, Alex has been the spark that has ignited the 'fire' for service in the area's youth and in the adults in Kiwanis for hands-on projects that support our Kiwanis goals and impact numerous people and other organizations not only in Downey but in the entire area of southern Los Angeles County."
As a result of the work done in 2012, Brenda Lopez, a former Downey KIWIN'S member, became the first student to become a member of the Kiwanis Club right after high school.
Born and raised in Downey, Lopez said her life "probably would have been totally different now if not for the Kiwanis Club." As president of Downey KIWIN'S, she received a scholarship after graduating with a 3.8 GPA at Downey High last year.
"It is an honor being part of the club that one day helped me, inspired me and continued to support me," said Lopez, who currently attends Fullerton City College with a major in political science. "I feel really happy for the accomplishments and changes we have made and feel very proud to be part of this great club. Now it is my time to help others the same way the Kiwanis club members helped me to achieve my goals."
The incorporation of Lopez into the big club is one of the goals Gaytan and the Kiwanis Club have envisioned: to get the children involved so after they finish their academic goals and start working, they return to Downey and continue their community service.
Fernando Vasquez, a Kiwanis member and Downey's current mayor pro-tem, said few organizations can motivate 400 young leaders to give back to their community.
"Our future looks very promising," Vasquez said. "Kiwanis has been helping to shape the next generation and we are teaching these kids leadership skills at an early age so when they become young adults they have the skill set to impact their community."