When a massive flood displaced 8-year-old Olivia Russo-Hood and her family from their home outside Atlanta in 2009, she experienced first-hand nature’s devastation. But, immediately following that, she learned of an even more powerful force: the kindness of neighbors.
“We had to leave our house right away and we weren’t able to bring many things with us,” recalls Olivia, now 14 and a current member ofgenerationOn’s Youth Advisory Council. “Our neighbors came and helped my mom sort through what we could save.”
The experience was overwhelming for Olivia and her brother, Vincent, who was just 5 years old. “It hit me really hard and came at just the right time when I was starting to think about what I wanted to do as I grew up and how I could be a good adult.”
Olivia decided to give back — and she did so with a vengeance, forming a loosely knit group of volunteer efforts that she called Save the Earth Projects, or S.T.E.P., when she was 10. Over the years, projects have ranged from building vegetables gardens, to raising awareness of childhood obesity, to collecting and distributing some 22,000 pairs of gently used shoes to those in need around the world.
“If I hadn’t received help, I would still feel broken down inside,” she says. “We were lucky, but I couldn’t help noticing that hundreds of others were displaced and that not everyone was able to get the help that we did. I felt like I needed to give something back.”
The organization has three missions: living responsibly locally, raising awareness nationally, and giving globally. “Our earth is our home,” Olivia says. “It doesn’t matter where — people are in need all over the world. That’s why I chose the name. It means that together we can make a difference — one ‘step’ at a time.”
Olivia’s idea has become a family affair, with mom Denise — a professional event producer — handling administrative and social media tasks and brother Vincent creating an off-shoot of S.T.E.P. Meanwhile, Olivia maintains an active speaking regimen to encourage others to find their own ways of giving back to the community.
“Adults could become paralyzed by the experience of losing everything, but Olivia saw the good of humanity and people coming to aid,” says Denise. “She smells the roses in life.” It’s been that way for a long time, her mom notes that even in third grade Olivia was helping birds survive and thrive in their natural habitats by clearing brush and land.
The intent of S.T.E.P. is for everyone to create their own projects and use the network to publicize them. But Olivia still dreams up projects, too. The shoe collection effort, for example, came about after she discovered that 300 million pairs of shoes wind up in American landfills each year — while, of course, millions of the world’s poor go shoeless, making them susceptible to parasites that can enter the bloodstream through cuts in their feet. Her shoe drives have helped benefit those in need worldwide and they have also raised money for local soccer clubs, science clubs and other nonprofit organizations like the YMCA.
“If you see someone on the side of the road, you have a choice,” says Olivia. “You can continue walking and pass them by or you can stop to help. People went out of their way to help us when we needed it and that felt really good. It also feels really good for me now to be able to do the same.”
If Olivia’s story inspires you, visit savetheearthprojects.com for direction on bringing your own volunteer effort to fruition or to join one of hers.