Friday evening, Nov. 17, the Duxbury Student Union (DSU) hosted speaker Jonathan Woods, young philanthropist and founder of the “Under the Tree Foundation,” to inspire young people to think about giving back and making a difference. Now a senior in high school, Jonathan recalls how back in middle school he experienced a true “aha moment” while shopping for holiday gifts with his mother. They were shopping to pick out a gift for a local toy drive when he had an epiphany: teens are often overlooked in holiday giving by charities and toy drives. Jonathan told his mother, “When I’m rich and famous, I’m going to create the “Under the Tree Foundation” and make sure all teens get what they want for Christmas.” Her response, he explained, changed his life forever, “Jonathan, you don’t have to be rich and famous to make a difference.”

The young audience listened intently as Jonathan explained how, with the support of his parents and key individuals, he was able to make his idea a reality fairly quickly and easily. Jonathan created the “Under the Tree Foundation” (UTTF), a 501c3 non-profit organization, with the goal to fulfill holiday wishes for a group of teens at the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester.  Jonathan explained the key to success is to set manageable goals, surround oneself with supportive people, and be personally connected to and passionate about the cause. Young people were in awe that Jonathan was only in eighth grade when he created his foundation, realizing that even at a very young age, people can make a difference in simple ways. You don’t have to aim to change the world; the simplest of acts can make a big impact.

Jonathan said the first year goal for UTTF was to fulfill wishes of about 25 teens selected by the staff at the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester. The response by donors was so overwhelming they ended up with donations in excess of what would be needed to fulfill wishes. So, UTTF decided to put the extra money toward a holiday outing, which has turned out to be the most personally fulfilling aspect of Jonathan’s efforts. Through group outings like skating at Frog Pond in Boston and celebrations at local restaurants, Jonathan and his family have developed relationships with these teens, learning their life stories and realizing that the experience of giving is far more satisfying than the actual gift, for both the giver and recipient. Now six years strong, the UTTF has grown to provide gifts for more than fifty teens each year, culminating in the holiday outing sometime in January. Recipients of UTTF gifts have noted the rewards go well beyond the basketball, hat, or iTunes gift card they receive; being part of this group has brought teens together as a family, creating indelible memories and forming an invaluable support system of lifelong friendships.

Jonathan’s visit to DSU was timely as many Duxbury families are thinking of ways to give back during the holiday season. As many young people have visions of sugarplums and perhaps Apple’s latest iThing dancing in their heads as the holidays approach, families are looking for ways to engage youth in acts of giving in line with the adage, “It’s always better to give than to receive.”

In this season of Thanksgiving, the DSU is grateful for the army of capable youth we have in Duxbury. Our young people have recently donated their Halloween candy to sweeten Christmas care packages for soldiers in Afghanistan.  Many have been inspired to rake leaves for older neighbors; they’ve committed to voting daily in support of Razia Jan, Duxbury’s hero, and they’ve been baking brownies for the Duxbury Interfaith Council Thanksgiving baskets. Some may choose to participate in giving to the “Under the Tree Foundation” and some may contribute locally to the Duxbury Interfaith Council as they fulfill wish lists to Duxbury families in need.

Whatever the cause and whatever the time of year, the Duxbury Student Union connects youth with opportunities inspiring them to give back through initiatives in our own community and beyond. The DSU welcomes any ideas our youth and families have to give back. If you have an idea that could help others, let us know and we’ll connect you with an army of youth waiting and willing to help you with your cause.

Together we CAN make a difference!

Jonathan Woods is a Duxbury resident and a senior at Tabor Academy in Marion. To learn more about the “Under the Tree Foundation,” what they do to fulfill wishes for teens, or to give, please visit underthetreefoundation.org. For more information about the Duxbury Student Union, go to duxburystudentunion.org.