Kid volunteers are at heart of South Jersey community service group

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The March Madness Tournament had recently ended, the Seed-Starting Workshop was soon to begin, and the Live Civilly Inc. office in the heart of Moorestown was chock-a-block with the paraphernalia of projects large and small.

”These are from the coat drive some of the kids in the community service program were doing,” Anna Buss, 17,  said, pointing to a box of cold-weather outerwear.

“The mugs are left over from the harvest fest,” the Moorestown High School junior added.”Oh, and here’s a book drive banner.”

From its origins as a faith-based family undertaking in 2009 — I first wrote about the Busses not long after —  Live Civilly has incorporated as a nonprofit and grown into a formidable, if low-key, force for good in Moorestown and nearby communities.

I like the Live Civilly name and especially, the organization’s logo: Two smiling, hand-drawn stick figures holding hands. It pretty much sums up the modest, neighborly, truly grassroots organization and the collegial role it has chosen to play in a contentious world.

“We’re neutral” about politics, Anna noted. “We’re about being civil.”

Neither is all that easy to do these days, but the message is appealing and has found an audience.

Sponsors such as Holman Automotive and the Wawa Foundation, and partners including the Moorestown Ministerium and the township school district, have helped Live Civilly amass about 250 volunteers — many of them elementary school students.

The volunteers annually provide several thousand adults and children with nutritional programs, including educational, and skills development programs, as well as  3,000 summer lunches and 28,000 healthy after-school snacks.

Involving kids in community service helps prepare them to be thoughtful, active citizens, said Anna’s mother, Kahra Buss, the president of Live Civilly. An executive with a management company that assists non-profit groups, she was named Citizen of the Year by the Moorestown Service Club Council in February.

Kahra and her husband, Joe, an executive with an engineering firm, have three daughters; Anna is the oldest, followed by Grace, 13, and Abigail, 10.

“Social responsibility boils down to being aware, having a sense of empathy — and being willing to [act],” Kahra, 46, said. Living Civilly gives youngsters the tools to do so; a service club at the township’s Upper Elementary School is a good example, she added.

In other words, good intentions are good. But doing something with those intentions is better. Consider: The 160 boys and girls, ages 8 to 13, who played in the March Madness Tournament, inspired by a certain college hoops contest, and raised $4,800 for nutrition programs in their own community.

“We made gift bags for sick kids at [Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia], and we’re going to deliver them,” sixth-grader Maddie Waggoner, 12, said proudly.

Other family members have become involved as well, said Maddie’s mother, Gwen.

“One of the great things about Living Civilly is that we can help others as a family,” added Gwen, a physical education teacher in the Pennsauken school system, and a mother of three.

The community garden at Roberts School where the Waggoners volunteer — they’re also among Live Civilly’s “Environmental Elves” who clean up after township parades — is one of six the organization has established in Moorestown.

The gardens are planted with seedlings grown by families who attend the seed-starting workshop like the one held April 8, which drew more than 100 people. Much of the fresh vegetable crop the gardens produce “goes right back into the food pantry” at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, where Living Civilly kids also pitch in.

Acts of giving can also involve receiving, Anna noted.

“I volunteered in one of our programs, called Homework Help, and some of these younger kids were not as privileged as your typical Moorestown kids,” she said. “I worked with them, I met their parents, and I got a broader sense of the people who live around me.”

Said Kahra: “The idea always has been to help people understand what it means to be socially responsible, active and empathetic — to bridge gaps, and bridge differences.”

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