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"Reach out and touch someone." -- Remember that '80s ad for ATT?

Well, a fourth-grade Evanston boy wanted kids with loved ones who are incarcerated to be able to just that, and in the process of making it happen, he and his mom reached out and touched many other Evanstonians too.

Karli Butler encourages her son Zailen Siner to do something kind for someone every day -- and to keep it to himself.

She tells him that it's between him and God.

Last week, Zailen, 10, told Karli, who is a fifth-generation Evanstonian and Program Officer at the Evanston Community Foundation, that he wanted to help local kids keep in touch with their loved ones who are incarcerated. He offered $50 of his savings.

Karli, moved by this kind deed, matched his donation.

"We personally know the challenges of keeping in touch with incarcerated loved ones," Karli says. "The calls can get expensive, but there are benefits to maintaining healthy contact, when it's appropriate."

Phone and video calls are an expense to families that may already be on fixed budgets.

"We pay about $25 every two weeks for phone calls and Zailen gets a couple calls throughout the week," Karli says. "The video calls are a separate expense at $6.25 each."

Karli says Zailen is fortunate to get so much contact and he knows it.

"His loved ones are too far to actually visit, and with Covid, most in-person visits have been completely stopped," Karli says. "We also don't have challenges paying our phone bill or wireless internet, which is required to maintain contact for phone or video calls. I am happy for the families to use the cards as they see fit."

Soon, Karli and Zailen decided to expand their idea beyond just the two of them so more Evanston kids and families could be supported this way. That's when Karli realized that this kind deed would need to be shared not only with God, but with the community.

"Initially, he wasn't happy with me sharing," Karli tells me. "I had to explain that this was a special situation in that we needed to connect to families who could use the money for the calls AND sometimes you share your efforts to touch the hearts of others and give them an opportunity to support a cause that's meaningful to them."

Karli took to Facebook and asked friends to support Zailen's vision. She also reached out to Stacey Moragne Sr., who has been an outreach worker with the City's Youth and Young Adult Division for eight years, because he has insight into Evanston families who could use the help.

Last Friday, thanks to Stacey's help identifying families and generous donations in response to Karli's request, Zailen dropped off $525 worth of Visa gift cards to help five Evanston kids talk or video-chat with loved ones without worrying about the cost.

"It's not something people talk about here, but we know Evanston isn't exempt," Karli says. "And because I've worked in direct service, I preferred to give the cards to Stacey so that he could give them to the kids and their families. We didn't want to be invasive or make them feel like they owe us anything."

Stacey, an ex-offender himself, has deep knowledge about needs in the community. "I know from hearing on the streets, from being in the community, and staying in tune with social media," Stacey says. "It's my business to know."

Stacey says he was blown away when Karli shared Zailen's idea.

"I think it is magnificent," he says. "It's selfless and caring and compassionate. For a young man of his age to be willing to give to individuals that he doesn't know--I think it's spectacular. You got to be real mature to have that thinking capacity."

As for Karli, who is a single mom, Stacey says, "I have enormous respect for her and moms like her who give their kids undivided attention."

In a Facebook post to everyone who donated by Friday, Karli wrote, "This was personal for my boy, so I'm grateful for the encouragement and support. I'm honestly not sure [Zailen] believes that what he's done is all that special, but I think it is. See, we believe that good deeds should be between yourself and God, but this one was worth sharing to get the funds to the right people. And who knows, this might just be the start of something special."

Zailen, whose beloved great-grandfather passed away last week at age 94, says simply, "This is in memory of my gramp. Just be kind."


If you'd like to support Zailen's outstanding work, email Karli to discuss how to get the funds to her. Facebook PM's to her are fine too.

She's able to receive Zelle or Cash-App, and she and Zailen will pick up cash or checks as well.

Please note that each $50 gift card costs $4.95 to purchase (Karli has so far paid for the gift cards herself) so consider adding that small cost to your donation.


NOTE: this is Karli and Zailen's personal effort and is not affiliated in any way with ECF.

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