Tabitha Joy Kulish and her pals have learned that the road to making a difference can be bumpy at times. “We were really excited to be doing the October Diabetes Walk, and everybody was skipping and singing,” the 15-year-old ninth grader recalls. “But then my best friend, Lori Frey, twisted her ankle. We didn’t want to walk without her, so we put her in a wheelchair we borrowed from the ambulance crew and took turns pushing her.” The group not only made it through the eight-mile course, but they also raised $1,000 for the cause.
It was all in a day’s volunteer work for the 20 teenage members of Operation Cheer-Up Kids, the Lancaster, PA, group Kulish founded in 199.5. Since then, they’ve raised more than $16,000 for such nonprofit organizations as the American Diabetes Association and Save Farm Families and logged 7,000 hours of community service.
The whole thing began in 1991, when Kulish was in second grade. As part of a school project, she sent a homemade card to a Desert Storm serviceman. “He said it cheered him up, and asked me to write to his friend too,” she says.
Then, when she was 11, Kulish began volunteering at a nursing home. While passing out mail, she realized that servicemen weren’t the only ones who could use some joy in their lives: “A lot of residents didn’t get any mail, so I thought, Why not send them cards?”
Kulish set up headquarters in her basement and recruited fellow cheerleaders, Girl Scouts, and classmates to put crayons to paper. She invited friends to participate in her ever-expanding list of community activities, and soon, members of Operation Cheer-Up Kids were picking up trash from local highways one weekend and raising money for area hospitals the next. Kulish’s allowance covers postage; her mom, Cammyjoy, is the group’s “taxi driver.”
To encourage other kids to form their own chapters, Kulish and Frey present “starter kits,” complete with crayons and stickers, to fifth and sixth graders in the Lancaster area. And whenever she meets people from out of state, Kulish isn’t above a little hard selling. There are now Operation Cheer-Ups in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Virginia, and South Carolina.
Wrote one hospital patient: “Your cards have brightened many bad days for me. Sometimes I think you must be an angel. You know just how to make me smile.”