Riley mixes ice cream sundaes at her old elementary school.
Riley mixes ice cream sundaes at her old elementary school.
What started as a 12-year-old's service requirement to earn her tae kwon do black belt has morphed into a $1,500 fund to help people in crisis.

The money, donated to the Nassau Sunshine Fund, can provide six or seven families in that area with interest-free loans to fix broken heaters and cars or pay electric bills and homeowner's insurance.

Riley Shannon, who's now 13, said she chose this organization for her tae kwon do project because "I like how they help people who can't afford difficult things. I like helping people."

Riley's past projects have included running a booth at a school festival and accompanying her father on visits to the homebound of St. Mary's parish in Nassau. She also sang in the parish's adult choir for a while.

But the black belt project was different, said her father, Jim: "I think she just wanted to take it to another level." Through Riley's example, he learned "the value of your child starting something and completing something."

Since her father had worked for Stewart's Shops for 20 years and also knew about the Nassau Sunshine Fund, Riley decided to organize an ice cream social at her old elementary school, Donald P. Sutherland in Nassau.

She wrote letters to everyone who might help with the project and made presentations to the school board and Parent Teacher Association. She was nervous at first, but afterward, "I felt really good," she said. "I felt like I was doing something good for other people."

Stewart's responded to her letter with a donation of more than 300 ice cream sundaes.

Mr. Shannon resisted the urge to get involved. The letter "was really in her own words, which is cute," he said, using a martial arts metaphor for her growth: "We can't break the boards for her."

Riley scooped ice cream and accepted donations parents gave so their children could get sundaes, raising more than $500 in one day.

With ingredients for 100 sundaes left over, Riley approached the parish about holding a children's movie night. She talked up her project to parishioners and raised more cash, which has continued to stream in.

Riley dished out more leftovers for the parish's mothers on Mother's Day; parish fathers will get the same treatment on Father's Day.

Church plays a big role in Riley's life. Mr. Shannon remembered when she and her older brother, Alex, chose early Mass instead of extra sleep last Christmas.

"It was moving for me," he said. "Clearly, this was more than just showing up and doing their hour for them. This is part of their life.

"The church aspect is very important because it shows [Riley] does these things her whole life, her whole day and her whole week," Mr. Shannon added. "She's the kind of kid who gives up her lunch or snack if someone doesn't have it. I think she just lives that spirit of kindness and generosity."

Riley told The Evangelist that faith "helps me to be careful with the choices I make. I try to be friends with everyone. I like making people feel good about themselves."

Riley started tae kwon do five years ago; she's been breaking one-inch boards since third grade. She was tasked with breaking five boards to earn her black belt, but went a step above and added a three-inch brick.

"I like how I learn new things every day," Riley said of her thrice-weekly classes. "It teaches me self-defense."

An honor roll student at Howard L. Goff Middle School in East Greenbush, Riley is working on her second black belt degree. She enjoys playing football with her brother and his friends, swimming and riding her purple bike to a nearby cemetery with a friend: "We sometimes put flowers on my dad's friend's grave," she explained.