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Michelle Chase

All you think about the world around you is engraved in your consciousness at the critical ages of 8, 9 and 10, many child development experts say: How you view people of different ethnicities. Whether you feel empathy or disdain for people with physical, social and economic challenges. How you frame the problems of far-flung nations – or communities right across the river in Dallas.
 
Michelle Chase experienced it herself as a child in Arlington, watching commercials of children with distended bellies in famine-struck Ethiopia. “I used to cry,” says the Dallas mom of two. “For like 50 cents a day, you could adopt a child from Ethiopia through the Christian Children’s Fund. I just thought I really wanted to do that.”
 
Michelle was 9 or 10 at the time, and while her family couldn’t afford to sponsor a child, the sense of compassion stuck. At 13, she and her sister pooled their $200 in Christmas money to buy items for a women’s shelter in Arlington. “The women were homeless, and I just couldn’t understand why we couldn’t bring the women into our home to really help them,” Michelle says. “And I still feel the same way. It’s not my business to ask why they’re in the situation. If I can help, it’s my obligation to help.”
 
Those experiences followed her all the way through life, imprinting themselves in college studies, through her early experiences as a lawyer, and now, in her role as founder and director of an unusual nonprofit venture, Wee Volunteers, which allows kids as young as 2 to pitch in for charity projects and have a lot of fun at the same time.
 
Michelle has seen the same awakening of conscience among kids who ride the party bus to deliver Meals on Wheels, or who work hard as a team assembling backpacks and hygiene kits for Community Partners of Dallas – then cap it off with a noisy pizza party. Giving back while having fun, that’s the ethos of Wee Volunteers. “I want the kids to want to come back – not to have their parents drag them,” Michelle says.
 
Last year, she saw more than 150 children and parents from all over the area gather to craft 500 Thanksgiving placemats at the Stewpot, a Dallas charity serving the homeless. The kids used markers to sketch drawings of what they were thankful for, while a Stewpot representative circulated among the tables. One boy of 8 barraged his mom with questions: “Why are these people homeless? Do they stay homeless? Do you feed them every meal? Where do you go after you feed them? Why aren’t they working?”
 
Though the questions were tough – even profound – Michelle saw evidence that Wee Volunteers was making its mark. She got another boost when she asked her 6-year-old daughter Mae, who comes to just about every project, if she knew the definition of “volunteer.”
 
“It means to help others,” the little girl said.
 
“I thought, that’s a pretty good definition,” says Michelle, who lives in the Northaven area with her husband, Elliot Zimmer, a vice president for Lennox International; their daughters, Mae and Mary Claire, 3; and a rescue cat and two dogs.
 
Michelle got the idea for Wee Volunteers one day in June 2009 just after she’d put the girls down for a nap – missing a Mommy and Me activity she’d signed up for. “Everybody feels obligated to put their kids in so many activities from infancy on,” she recalls thinking, “and this is really genius marketing, with a huge group of people to tap into.”
 
What if she started her own Mommy and Me activity – what would it be? Michelle immediately came up with the answer: She’d do volunteer work with her kids.
 
That same day, “like it was meant to be,” Michelle came up with a concept and a title, Wee Volunteers, and registered the domain name. She started phoning charities and discovered something right away. “Nobody really had anything to do for families with young children,” Michelle says. By not including them, charities were missing out on a major resource.
 
Michelle launched Wee Volunteers’ first official service project a year later. Following advice from one of her husband’s business associates, she enlisted a built-in cadre of young volunteers: kids from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Dallas. Those children, who still participate in Wee Volunteers efforts, helped Michelle hone her model by spinning bingo games at a retirement home, handing out treat bags at the Dallas Zoo at Halloween and making ornaments for Children’s Medical Center.
 
The kids worked hard, Michelle observed, and enjoyed doing something that made a difference. In those early projects, Michelle forged relationships with local charities, persuading them to create volunteer activities with kids ages 2–13 specifically in mind.

Last year, Michelle opened Wee Volunteers to the public. Though her original target was the Park Cities “Bubble,” today she draws volunteers from as far away as Fort Worth. Her aim is to make the organization accessible to everyone, even if they can’t afford the modest suggested donation that covers Wee Volunteers’ costs. (Wee Volunteers always makes a donation to the charity to encourage future projects for kids.)
 
Charities have embraced Wee Volunteers, assigning educators who talk about what their organization does. Michelle tries to bring the kids on-site for every event so they can understand how their projects touch real people. She also hands out “talking tips” so parents can address their children’s questions in an age-appropriate way.
 
Along the way, Michelle has chipped away at her perfectionist tendencies – in projects with little kids, after all, it’s not a matter of whether something will go against the plan, it’s when.
 
“I’m really happy to see the number of people that want to volunteer with their kids,” she says. “I feel like I am pretty mainstream, so if I want to do it, surely there will be others too. But people are willing to take time out of their jobs to bring kids to my projects.”
 
In Michelle’s family, Wee Volunteers doesn’t replace back-yard encounters with lizards and bugs or the family road trip. But it’s brought results in her home: kids who care.
 
For information about Wee Volunteers’ upcoming events, visit weevolunteers.org.