The 15-Year-Old Philanthropist

These days, charity begins at womb.

By Elise Rambaud Marrion July 7, 2014 Published in the July 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Non-profit wunderkind Sofia Ivanka wrote her first book at the age of nine.

In 2010, Sofia Ivanka wrote Fourth Grade Math Rules, a Montessori-inspired text designed to help struggling students. Like many, Ivanka was committed to helping young people boost their performance in that all-important subject. Unlike many, she was young herself—she wrote the book at the age of nine. 

Fourth Grade Math Rules was a success, or at least successful enough to inspire Fifth Grade Math Rules, which she later produced—in both English and Spanish—at which point Ivanka moved on to starting after-school programs and founding a nonprofit organization, Building Smart Kids, also in 2010. 

“If I see students struggling at school, if I recognize that it is a widespread problem, if I have the knowledge and resources to help students, why would I stop at just tutoring a few friends?” said the high school freshman, now 15. “Starting a nonprofit was the best way to reach the most people, so it was the logical next step. I never considered not taking the next step.”

In April, Ivanka was recognized by Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia for her latest after-school effort, “Combating Crime with Education,” launched this spring in two HISD elementary schools. Garcia announced the program at Building Smart Kids’s first fundraiser, whose attendees included Joanne King Herring and Rice University president David Leebron. 

“The work this young woman has done, and continues to do for our community, is the type of dedication rarely seen from anyone,” said Garcia later, “much less from someone as young as 14.” 

Not to take issue with the sheriff, but Ivanka’s philanthropic efforts, while laudatory, are far from rare among the pre–driver’s license set, at least these days. A new generation is on the march, a cohort of philanthro-teens much in tune with global concerns, issues too large to be tackled with car washes, raffles, and bake sales. In fact, Ivanka is just one of many young people worldwide to find herself tumbling headfirst into social entrepreneurship before puberty. 

Meanwhile, parents all over the world are finding themselves asking the same question: what the hell’s going on?

“I don’t think kids are more compassionate now than they were before,” Ivanka told us. “I think previous generations recognized the same problems we see, but we have a lot more opportunities to help.” Such as? “More resources: the Internet, social media, and more people who recognize that young people can make a difference. Adults are now taking our leadership potential more seriously.”

Deena Munn, executive director and founder of the Houston Philanthropic Society, confirmed that kids and teens are increasingly making their presence known in the Houston charity scene.

“Organizations like Prepared 4 Life”—a local nonprofit dedicated to helping children “create the foundation for future success in the global economy,” according to its website—“are deeply rooted in teaching children about entrepreneurialism and giving back,” Munn said. “As kids learn about building their own business, they also learn about giving back, in turn creating future philanthropists.” 

The increased interest by the young in giving back, both in terms of money and time, may be catching their parents off guard, but experts have noticed the trend for some time. A recent study released by the UN Foundation and Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that nine out of ten children ages 8 to 19 give to charity. Boys are as likely to give as girls, and all do so regardless of family income.  

“For many years I have inquired about what drives kids and adults to give back, and the resounding answer is always influence by family,” Munn said. “For most, it is the influence of their parents, who taught them the importance of volunteering or making donations.”

And so, parents, of all people, shouldn’t really be surprised at what’s happening (except in the sense that parents are always surprised when their children listen to them), and they can expect their children to take their charitable habits with them when they go to college. Sofia Ivanka isn’t quite ready for that yet, although she is typically prodigious there too. She’s spending the summer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she’ll be taking some college credit courses at Harvard University, and taking her nonprofit programs with her.

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