02/05/2012 04:58 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2012

Souper Bowl of Caring

The year was 1990. February. It was a Sunday. Super Bowl Sunday, as it is now known across the country. A normal worship service was being conducted in a normal church in a normal town in America. Somebody said a prayer: "Lord, even as we enjoy the Super Bowl football game, help us be mindful of those who are without a bowl of soup to eat." Nice sentiment. Kind of a clever little twist on the bowl theme. But probably destined to be enjoyed for a few nanoseconds and then dissolved out of mind. Such is the way of the world.

Except that it stuck in the minds of a couple of teenagers who heard it, and they started talking after the service. Super Bowl. Soup Bowl. Huh. Is there something here we can work with?

Like, what if we...what if we, maybe, I don't know, like...did something today at the soup kitchen downtown before the game. Volunteered as servers. Or, you know, how about if we collected cans of soup to give to poor people. I don't know. But something. What do you think?

Whatever they thought, it boiled down to this: Super Bowl Sunday is a day that is full of energy, and let's see if we can harness some of that energy to help these people who are without a bowl of soup to eat.

So they got in touch with some friends at other churches and tried out the idea. It sparked. Triggering calls that grew more excited the more of them there were, suddenly kids in twenty-two area churches joined the game and, next thing they knew, $5,700 had been put in the hat to buy food for the local soup kitchen and food bank. Now, $260 per church isn't such a big deal, but triggering that response from all across the community in a flash is what today's internet mavens would call "going viral".

It could have ended there. Nice instinct. Nice response. Now let's go home and enjoy the game.

Well, they did go home and enjoy the game. But something had happened. Had happened to them. Had snatched their imaginations. They had experienced the infectious power of caring. And they wondered how much more power there might be lying around ready to be triggered by a second run at this next year. A run that had a little preparation ahead, rather than being spun up on Super Bowl Sunday itself.

So they plotted and planned and spread the idea from church to church, from youth group to youth group, from school to school: okay fellow teenagers, let's use Super Bowl week to show ourselves and our neighbors what we kids have inside us.

Talk about "going viral"! Just two years later, schools and churches in thirty-six states were participating in the Souper Bowl of Caring. By 1996, the kids were raising over $1,000,000 for their new 501 (c) 3 non-profit movement, and all the money was going directly into the local food programs in the communities where the money was raised.

In due course, some owners of NFL football teams, who have fairly deep pockets, found themselves drawn into this new game on Super Bowl Sunday and made significant contributions. These and others enabled the staffing of an office to coordinate the now-national effort, so that 100% of the money the kids raised could always flow straight onto the plates and into the bowls of hungry people in American communities.

How is it going today? Any business owner would go wobbly in the knees if they had a growth rate like the Souper Bowl of Caring. The number of groups and the amount raised has skyrocketed exponentially. All told, the total since that first weekend's passing-the-hat is somewhere north of $50,000,000, and it is still growing. Now, with the internet to electrify its "going viral", kids in groups all around the country engage in good-natured competition to outdo each other in generating donations. They post their scores and their photos on the Souper Bowl of Caring website and on Facebook and in personal texts and e-mails, goading and inspiring each other to ever-greater heights of caring. Take a look at the faces on those websites and see the smiles, see the glow, see the heart, see the future. They feel really good about themselves, and well they should.

There's an ancient piece of Scripture that says, "And a little child shall lead them." At a time when certain adult leaders are acting too childish to be taken seriously, this is a fine time to let the real children lead us.