Fran and K.C. O'Connor viewed their 2014 spring break trip as a grand finale. Traveling to Mexico with five other families, they'd celebrate their daughters' upcoming graduation and launch into college, as well as the adult friendships forged thanks to their girls.
But instead of going their separate ways afterward, the families found that the trip was a new beginning.
Connected by soccer and basketball at Minnetonka High School, the six families now are joined by a long-term endeavor: group philanthropy.
For the past year, each couple has tucked away $20 a month. They agree that the sum is easily manageable, and that's the point.
On March 8, the couples gathered for drinks and hors d'oeuvres, then got down to the satisfying business of voting on which worthy cause would receive their collective $1,440 raised over the year. They chose an organization that immunizes children in developing countries. They will meet again next year to choose another charity, and again the year after that.
While all the couples donate to charities on their own, this effort has been meaningful on many levels. It keeps them connected. It demonstrates to their girls the value of giving back. But mostly, the spring break outreach demonstrates how a small effort can have a big impact. Thanks to their $1,440, 144 children will be immunized against pneumonia, which probably will save their lives.
"It's very easy to be overwhelmed by all the poverty and oppression in the world," said Fran O'Connor, the effort's driver. "This is just a small amount, but if other spring break families did the same sort of thing each year, think of the ripple effect it would cause."
Spring break. As many fortunate parents know, it's no longer just a week off from school. At some point, we entered a world of entitlement — or more likely we created it — where our kids are packed and ready for elaborate vacations, or elaborate whining if we have nothing planned. The chorus goes something like, "But all my friends are going somewhere!"
There's nothing wrong with enjoying family time in a warm climate, if we can afford it. So why do we sometimes feel so ambivalent or even guilty?
This was the struggle O'Connor faced almost a decade ago when her son, then a senior in high school, asked if the O'Connors could join a bunch of his friends and their families on a trip to Mexico.
"You've got to be kidding," she told him. Instead, his parents told him that he could go on his own, and he'd have to pay his way, which he did.
By their third and youngest child, "we metamorphosed," O'Connor said with a laugh. She and K.C. signed up with five other families last March to enjoy an all-inclusive Mexican resort.
"These were really great parents and a really great group of girls," she said. "But I still had a bothersome feeling of guilt about doing this."
Turning guilt to gratitude
Toward the middle of their stay, Fran and K.C. walked away from their luxurious digs and into the local community, coming face to face with abject poverty. Children tried to sell them chewing gum; others swam in their underwear, unsupervised. On the beach, they met a woman from Canada who brings clothing, toys and books in suitcases on her annual visits. The woman told them that her church raised funds to rebuild the roof of a local orphanage.
"We could see that a small amount of money went so far to help these people," said Fran, who works part-time in sales. "We went back to the resort — which was like going back to Disney World — and started thinking: What if we put aside a small amount each month to give back, as a way to remind us of how lucky and fortunate we are?"
K.C. admitted to being skeptical of his wife's idea. "You know how hard it is to get six groups of people to agree on anything?" asked the Delta Air Lines pilot. "But, selfishly, I liked the idea because we can get together more often."
Two couples were tasked with researching potential charities. That role will rotate annually.
Greta and Greg Van Ochten found inspiration for their choice through their older daughter, Hannah, a junior at the University of Iowa.
"She said, 'I'm involved with this immunity club,' " recalled Greta, who checked out the website to learn more.
Another couple chose an organization supporting literacy. During the dinner party, the two groups made their presentations and answered questions. Important to many was what percentage of the money goes directly to human need, as opposed to administration.
While immunizations won, "they were both really great, interesting and worthwhile organizations," O'Connor said. "We couldn't go wrong with either of them."
If there's ever a tie, the girls will be called in to break it.
Robyn and John Kuzara have stepped up to research causes for 2016. "We might lean toward a cause in Mexico," Robyn said. "I thought it was a great way to pay it forward."
The collaboration drew high praise from experts working at the crossroads of money and family values. "It's an alternative set of values that give these families a sense of meaning and purpose that is better than buying another handbag," said Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College in Galesberg, Ill., and author of "The High Price of Materialism."
Nathan Dungan agreed, calling the effort "admirable." Dungan is founder and president of Share Save Spend, a Minneapolis-based company that offers families resources for wisely doing those three things.
With a laugh, he called spring break "the arms race," but there is truth in his tone. These six families "had a bit of an awakening, an epiphany," said Dungan, who recently promoted good values around money on Mom Enough (www.momenough.com), a local webcast featuring mother-daughter co-hosts Marti and Erin Erickson.
"Experiential spending is OK within reason," Dungan said. "So, too, is looking out into the world. It's pretty awesome that they said, 'Hey, is there something we can do about this thing that's right in front of us?' "
Fran O'Connor is touched that all five other families "thought this was a good idea," she said. "Now, if just one group copies us, it will be even more meaningful."