Young changemaker

Who says you have to wait till you grow up to change the world? Nine-year-old Cailtin Smith tells Priya Kulasagaran how can children can be leaders too

One October morning in 2015, shoppers at the Bangsar Village mall in Kuala Lumpur were greeted with an unusual sight — a little girl handing out cookies to complete strangers, for no other reason than to put a smile on their faces. Inspired by World Smile Day, the seven-year-old was moved to commit to a random act of kindness for others. She had spent hours the night before taping handmade cards to packets of cookies, inscribing them with smiley faces and cheery messages and jokes with the hopes of making someone’s day feel a bit brighter.

As she handed out the treats, under the watchful eyes of her parents, the girl was just making her first steps towards making the world a better place. Since then, Caitlin Smith has gone on to initiate a string of community-based projects, from saving turtles to helping the homeless.

“Some people really didn’t want the cookies,” recalls Caitlin, now nine years old. “They thought I was collecting donations so they shooed me away like I was an irritating fly. Some people were surprised that I was giving them away without wanting anything in return, because they didn’t expect that.”

Accompanied by her parents, Caitlin has arrived at the interview well-organised; she leaves through meticulous hand-written notes about her various projects, her excited chatter punctuated by brief pauses as she finds the best words to describe her experiences and thoughts. Needless to say, this is a child who can carry an interesting conversation more easily than many adults.

Making use of the news

Following her World Smile Day endeavour, Caitlin decided to tackle a more serious issue early last year — homelessness. “I went to the Pit Stop Community Cafe (in Kuala Lumpur), where they give out food and necessary items to the homeless,” she says. “I met a lot of people there, and I asked them a few questions about what they do and how they do it. I even met the co-founder, Miss Joycelyn, and I asked her if we could help her.”

That chat has led to an on-going project in aid of the cafe’s meal offerings to the underprivileged. Aside from soliciting donations from her fellow home-schoolers and friends, Caitlin has also come up with her own ways of fundraising — such as an art exhibition she held last year.

Caitlin continues to be a regular volunteer at Pit Stop; an impressive feat since the centre can be strict with its recruitment of volunteers. She has even participated in the centre’s associated programmes, such as Project Tikar, which involves handing out useful household items (such as mats, or tikar, soap, water and mosquito coils) to the homeless, raising enough money to provide 66 backpacks packed with such items. In addition to this, she also supplies free colouring books to children’s wards at various hospitals.

It should be noted that the money she raises includes dollars coming out from her own pocket: every month, Caitlin sets aside RM10 from her allowance to go towards charity or community work. “It might be a small difference, but it is still a difference,” she says.

What drives Caitlin’s projects is a keen observation of the world around her – as well as the news. “Some parents criticise us for allowing her to watch the news,” says Caitlin’s mother Anne. “But we don’t think it’s wrong to let her see what’s happening in the world. We don’t believe in censoring information, because this is the current world that we live in. What we do is talk about it together, and share our values of what is right and wrong.”

With the high-profile bullying cases hogging the headlines this year, it is no wonder that Caitlin is in the middle of planning an anti-bullying campaign. “I don’t think it’s right for children to bully until someone dies – why do people do that?” questions Caitlin. “I’m still trying to figure out how to do it, but the idea is stopping children from bullying other children just because they’re different… I was bullied before for being different too, I know what it feels like. And I don’t want anyone else to feel that way.”

Less grumbling, more doing

Being an animal lover, one of Caitlin’s favourite projects was a beach clean-up and awareness raising session on endangered turtles held in January. The spark for this project came from a family holiday to Port Dickson last October, where she unexpectedly stumbled across a dead hawksbill turtle while taking a stroll along the beach.

“It was a really young turtle — and they can live up to a 150 years old — and I think it was strangled by rubbish, because I saw a lot of plastic rubbish around it. I felt really sad seeing that, and kept thinking about it after we came home. And my mum said if I wanted to do something about it, I should,” says Caitlin.

This resulted in some 70 children combing the beach in Port Dickson, gathering some 243kg of rubbish along a 16km radius.

From Anne’s perspective, this was the perfect opportunity to show her daughter that taking a proactive approach to something upsetting can be more useful than simply being upset. “She kept grumbling about it being not fair, and how it was terrible, so my question to her was: yes, so what can we do about this?” says Anne. “I don’t think we should discount children’s ideas or efforts just because they are children — they too can do something in their own way. And grumbling about a problem will not make it go away. People tend to think that somebody else should solve the issue, but I think, well, why can’t we start doing something ourselves?”

Related to the modern human tendency towards mere grumbling, is the cynicism Caitlin sometimes faces — usually from adults.

“Once, the taxi driver taking us to Pit Stop asked us why we were helping the homeless,” she says. “He said they’re all ‘just lazy’ and that we shouldn’t help them. But that’s not true, and why shouldn’t we help people when we can do something to make a difference?”

Anne meanwhile, recalls the snide remarks made by some as Caitlin handed out those cookies two years ago. “I mentioned that she was homeschooled, and the usual reaction was, ‘Oh, no wonder you’re so free to do this’. I guess I find it more important to teach my child empathy and kindness than shuttling her away for tuition after tuition. She’s learning about the real world by doing these projects as well; we support her where we can, but ultimately these are her projects. You can’t learn these skills from a textbook,” she says.

For her part, Caitlin believes other children can lead their own projects to make an impact on the world. “Don’t let anybody look down on you just because you’re young,” she says. “No matter how old you are, you can do something, and you can inspire others.”

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