Education

North Salem Teen's Joke Turns Charitable Opportunity in Somers' School

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Aidan Dooley with other founding members of The Giving Tree": Tom Young, Matt Vigna, Vin Conte and Kyle Knox at the Maria Fareri Children's Hospital
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Aidan Dooley with the staff at Hayden House in Ossining.
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SOMERS, N.Y.--What started out as a joke among five friends who attend John F. Kennedy Catholic High School in Somers has morphed into something they can be far more proud of: a 250-member group determined to do good.

The John Stamos Cooking Club is no more. Firmly planted in its stead is The Giving Tree.
In its first act, the club could have been characterized as the non-committal, rebellious type—not unlike Uncle Jesse, the sitcom character popularized by Stamos in the popular TV show “Full House” in the ’90s.

“So basically, me and my four friends started the club as a joke, because with clubs at school you can get out of class to promote your club,” explained founding member Aidan Dooley, 17.

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It’s even funnier considering the resume of the ambitious senior, which doesn’t read like that of someone who would seriously consider missing class. When the honors student isn’t playing on the school’s soccer and lacrosse teams, he takes on projects designed to help others. Like volunteering one week each year with the Appalachia Service Project, an organization that connects thousands of volunteers from around the country with rural Central Appalachia to repair homes for low-income families.

Aidan, who lives in North Salem, was introduced to the organization by his younger sister, Meghan, and both credit their parents for instilling their values. Aidan said he was exposed to the giving bug at school, as well. 

Sister Barbara Heil was among those who helped set an example for Aidan and the many other students who took her Latin classes. She was killed in a car accident on Route 6 in the spring of 2016 at age 80.

Each year, Heil organized an Easter basket drive and donated the baskets to the Mustard Seed Migrant Ministry in Goshen, a non-profit organization dedicated to hospitality, outreach and connection to the Latino farmworking community, particularly the children.

“She definitely instilled a sense of giving within us,” Aidan said.

When membership in the cooking club reached 250, Aidan said, “We realized that we had an opportunity, with so many kids in it, to make a real difference in the community.”

A look at Uncle Jesse’s character arc foreshadowed what happened next. Though he hadn’t intended to stick around the Tanner household, Uncle Jesse gave up his freewheelin’ ways to help raise the Tanner girls, taking up residence in their home and the hearts of “Full House” fans for eight seasons.

Likewise, Aidan and his friends legitimized their fledgling group by organizing a toy drive. 

“We set up these massive cardboard boxes and wrapped them up with different types of Christmas wrapping and got kids to donate unused, unopened toys,” Dooley said. “We donated all of them to Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital. There were close to 700 [gifts], which is pretty cool.”

Reinforced by the success of the toy drive, Aidan and his friends decided they wouldn’t let an Easter go by without honoring Heil by carrying on her tradition.

They organized an Easter drive, which yielded enough goods to make 120 baskets, Aidan said. The baskets were donated to Cardinal McCloskey Community Services (CMCS), a nonprofit that provides services to foster children, preschool-aged students from low-income families and developmentally disabled adults.

Now the club’s schedule includes three staples: a Christmas toy drive, the Easter basket drive and a Valentine’s Day carnation drive to benefit the American Heart Association.

They are considering the addition of a “fun community” fundraiser, such as a bingo or bowling night, to benefit a charity of their choice, but nothing is set in stone yet, he said.

Aidan, meanwhile,  has begun to look at universities for next fall. He plans to study business, but said he wouldn’t be surprised if that changes down the line.

One requirement a potential school must meet for him, however, is whether students are encouraged to get involved in their communities. Habitat for Humanity is a commonly offered option he’s seen in his search, he said.

“Just about all of them do offer something like that,” he said. “It’s definitely something I’m going to look to participate in going forward.”

Aidan said that the perspective he has gained through volunteering keeps him motivated to continue giving back or lending a hand when he can.

“I know what to expect now, but my first year with the ASP, it was kind of crazy,” he said of his time spent in Appalachia. “I live in Westchester, where for the most part, everyone is privileged. It’s a big difference from when you go down to Virginia and see what these people deal with every day. Some people don’t have water.”

Aidan said that although the difference he and other volunteers make in a week might not be enormous, it’s “just nice to help,” stressing that a week of time from more than one group eventually adds up.

“With the right mindset, purpose and group of people, we can really make a difference,” he said.

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