Woodstock native Tonya Riddick is a staunch advocate for our young people. In spite of headlines and news reports that seem to indicate the contrariness of some children, Tonya said, “Every child I meet inspires me to continue pushing for a better world for them.”
Out of her personal belief grew SmileUp!, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization created in 2018 that provides young people with opportunities to serve in Cherokee County. “We have to make sure their voices are heard and appreciated. What we fail to realize is that when we ignore their voices, we are ignoring our own future, because what and how young people think will be the ideal we are forced to live with when they grow up,” she said.
Tonya explained that statistics show volunteerism has positive effects on mental health, bringing smiles to all involved. Thus the name, SmileUp! “A smile causes the brain to release tiny molecules called neuroleptics to help fight off stress. Other neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins come into play, too. The endorphins act as a mild pain reliever, whereas serotonin is an antidepressant,” she said. (https://bit.ly/44q6AEE)
This volunteer organization has a membership of about 480, ages 18 and younger. Typically, each child has an opportunity to donate their service at least once a month. Opportunities to contribute vary from month to month. “We even had a 2-year-old volunteer, placing sticky notes of encouragement during our annual Stickie Smiles campaign,” Tonya said.
Annually, members prepare peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the homeless in downtown Atlanta. This year, they provided more than 2,000 sandwiches. Volunteers also collect books, which they donate to Books for Africa. During the past three years, they have collected and donated about 3,200 books. Monthly events from which members may choose are posted on the SmileUp! website, where parents also can enroll children who are interested in getting involved.
Once enrolled, local youth and their guardians are kept informed of volunteer opportunities via email. Tonya explained that SmileUp! is in the process of developing an app via Safe Avenue that would allow young volunteers to be more engaged in selecting events they want to participate in.
How is SmileUp! supported financially? Funding comes from individuals in the community. “The more money we have to provide materials/items needed to help children, the more children we can help,” Tonya said.
Tonya knows about the needs of children in Cherokee County. Her parents, Kenneth and Ann Johnson, were in business here for many decades, and she grew up and was educated here. She has been married to Steve Riddick for 23 years, and they have two sons. Their oldest, Steven Kenneth, 21, attends DePaul University in Chicago on a full presidential scholarship. Jared, 15, attends Etowah High School. He plans to be an environmental engineer to create ways to impact our planet positively.
The Riddicks are avid travelers, nationally and globally. “I want my sons to be world citizens, so we travel, gaining exposure to how others live and what their needs are,” she said.
For more information about SmileUp!, visit https://smileupfoundation.org.
– Margaret Miller has been a resident of Cherokee County for the past decade. Her writing hobby led her to become a columnist for community and daily newspapers.