Dolls. Toys. Bikes and video games. These are typical items on the birthday wish lists of many 6-year-old girls. Yet when Campbell McElaney's big day rolls around every October, she asks for only one thing from friends and classmates: Soup cans.
Campbell's Cans, a philanthropic effort that in six years has generated more than 3,295 cans of donated food for Metropolitan Ministries of Tampa, is spearheaded by this Land O'Lakes resident and student at Lutz Learning Center.
"I've been helping people my whole life," she said with a smile.
In recognition of her efforts to help the poor and homeless, St. Joseph's Children's Hospital has named Campbell among the 2013 winners of its 16th annual Kids Are Heroes campaign. Campbell is this year's sole Pasco winner, standing among the youngest of what a St. Joseph's press release calls "nearly 170 children ages 5 to 18 throughout our community . . . who have performed heroic deeds or displayed acts of selflessness and good citizenship."
"We hope that Campbell is proud of her accomplishments so far — she's only 6 years old!" said Jacqueline Tolley, media relations coordinator at BayCare Health System. "This year we had a record 170 Kids Are Heroes nominees, all of whom were recognized during a ceremony on March 27. We hope that these children and their families will encourage other kids to do the same — to become more involved in local philanthropy efforts, take action when they are faced with a situation that they can help make a difference and find their own unique ways to be a hero in someone's life."
Nominated by family friend Stephanie Pitts, a St. Joseph's nurse, Campbell was among the winners handpicked by hospitalized kids at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital, with a little help from former Tampa Bay Lightning team captain Dave Andreychuk and ThunderBug, the Lightning team mascot. And in late March, Tampa Bay Lightning Center and Kids Are Heroes spokesman Steven Stamkos helped St. Joseph's Children's Hospital congratulate the winners in three age categories at a ceremony at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Stamkos presented each nominee with a trophy, as well as medals and goody bags to the winners.
Campbell admits that it was "very cool" to meet a Lightning player, and wear a tiara and medal, as a second-place winner in the 5- to 8-year-old category. She was even more thrilled just after her 6th birthday party last year, when she helped hand deliver 1,000 cans collected as part of the 2012 Campbell's Cans campaign. Then she got to stand and watch as some needy Metropolitan Ministries clients sat down to enjoy meals she facilitated.
"I want to see people who don't have food, get food," she said. "I feel happy and it's a good thing to do."
And in the eyes of April McElaney, Campbell's mom and the originator of the Campbell's Cans project, the primary mission is not only to help people in need but to instill within her daughter a charitable spirit and a desire to help.
"I wanted her to realize what a great thing it is to help people not be hungry," McElaney said. "I wanted to turn it into her passion."
The first Campbell's Cans drive took place in conjunction with Campbell's 1st birthday: in lieu of gifts, McElaney and husband, TJ, asked friends and family members to bring canned foods to their daughter's birthday party. Particularly welcome were Campbell's soups, as they bore the name of the guest of honor.
"It was just a casual effort for family and friends," McElaney said. "We set a goal of 100 cans."
Between the October party and that year's family Halloween celebration, the family pulled in 200 cans for Metropolitan Ministries.
In the years that followed, the effort grew to include the entire family each doing their part to help, from Campbell's siblings Peyton, 13; Nolyn, 9; and Murphy, 2, as well as her cousin and best friend, Giada, 6, plus cousins John, 3, and Lincoln, 1, and grandmother Evelyn Pergola. From Peyton producing a YouTube video to promote Campbell's Cans to Grandma Evelyn spreading the word about the effort to friends and neighbors, a family project soon became a community campaign, with CrossRoads Community United Methodist Church in Wesley Chapel and REC Ministries in Hillsborough County hosting donation sites.
Yet most important, McElaney said, her daughter Campbell is taking ownership of her own philanthropic endeavor.
"Every year I see her doing a little more," McElaney said, "understanding a little more."
Indeed, Campbell talks to her classmates at Lutz Learning Center and Broadway Dancesations dance studio in Lutz, requesting and accepting can donations.
"And I tell them why I do it," she said.
Campbell helps sort and store her cans, and has big plans. She says that she hopes to continue and expand Campbell's Cans indefinitely.
"Maybe someday I can give toys to kids too," she said.
In the more immediate future, McElaney says that Campbell would love to put her efforts in a national spotlight. The family is preparing a letter about Campbell's Cans to submit to the Ellen DeGeneres Show.
"Ellen interviews kids who do good things and gives them gifts, and Campbell would love to go on the show," McElaney said.
And when McElaney asked what gifts she'd like to receive on the show, Campbell's answer was quick and simple.
"I don't want anything," she said, "unless Ellen wants to give me some cans."