Photo: Shannon Mora with her daughter, Lillia at one of the Count on Me Family Foundation's Holiday Shops events.
After Shannon Mora witnessed the impact the Special Olympics had on her sister, Whittney, now deceased, who was born with Down's Syndrome, she dedicated her time to volunteering with the organization.
“My favorite thing was to be a hugger," she recalled. The joyous response to that gesture taught her how much it meant to the competitors to “feel like they count."
Years later, she realized the greatest impact — both on her life and the lives of those she was supporting — came from those “hands on" moments, and she wanted her four children — Cole, Lillia, Ryder, and Trey — to share in the experience of making a direct impact in other people's lives.
So in 2005, Mora founded the Count on Me Family Foundation with her then-husband, football coach Jim Mora, “to empower and inspire children in need, whether they are medically fragile, economically disadvantaged, or developmentally challenged."
The logistical demands of starting and running a family foundation — a 501(c)(3) of private foundation funded by a family — such as the initial time commitment, costs, and regulatory requirements, can deter some from pursuing this philanthropic endeavor.
However, those who do start a family foundation, like the Moras, are often motivated by the desire to establish a family legacy of giving.
“Parents want to teach their children to be impactful citizens and they want to transfer their values — it's their legacy," said Alma Banuelos, national head of Trust and Estate Services at City National Bank.
Rather than write a check to an established charity or fund construction of a building, Mora wanted her family foundation to host events that her children could participate in, like their Holiday Shops project.
Now in its 15th year, Holiday Shops gives children who are hospital-bound during the holidays the opportunity to "go shopping" for their parents or caregivers by bringing gifts to them to select, for free, and wrap. The program takes place in six states and nine hospitals, with plans to expand.
“It's one thing to get a toy, that's wonderful," Mora explained, “but when a child gets to pick gifts for their parents or guardians, that makes them feel like they're part of the holiday while empowering them because they get to give back too."
Her children have all volunteered at Holiday Shops in various ways and continue to do so, from inventorying and organizing the gifts to assisting the young shoppers.
In addition to Holiday Shops, Count on Me also traditionally hosts one other annual event to provide under-served children an experience they likely would not otherwise have.
For example, because they live in Manhattan Beach, the Mora children regularly enjoy playing in the surf, but they realized that less fortunate children living just a few miles away have never had a chance to go to the beach. Wanting to share in that joy, the family planned a beach day that provided transportation, activities and lunch for children who may not have otherwise had such an opportunity. This turned into another recurring event that the family hosted.
A similar event, Bus 2 the Bowl, transported low-income kids from the greater Los Angeles area to sporting events at the historic Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena.
Most recently, Count on Me hosted Art Inspiration 2019, that hosted a group from the Metro Los Angeles Boys and Girls Club Watts-Willowbrook Clubhouse to an immersive mural art experience with renowned artist Lionel Milton.
By participating in the events and fundraisers hosted by the family foundation, the Mora children gained a greater understanding of not only their own privilege, but also the importance of helping all children enjoy pleasures the Mora children might have otherwise taken for granted.
"It has been truly inspiring and amazing to see the growth of the foundation," said Mora's daughter, Lillia. "As I grew up, so did my mom's vision and so did my passion for giving back and helping others through the foundation. Seeing firsthand what my mom does to help those less fortunate inspires me to want to be a part of the legacy and continue to help others."
Now that the Mora children are older — Cole and Lillia have graduated from college, Ryder is currently attending USC, and Trey is a high school junior — their involvement in the foundation is shifting, but not shrinking.
As her children grew up, Mora considered reducing the scope of Count on Me, but the family decided it was too meaningful and too much a part of their family to allow it to dissolve. Their passion for philanthropy is exactly the legacy Mora hoped she'd create.
All the children are highly involved in their roles on the board of trustees — positions that allow them to make decisions that further the mission of the foundation.
Additionally, Ryder Mora has also made charitable giving and homeless outreach a key component of an apparel company, Improper Etiquette, he co-founded last year.
Ryder explained, "Connecting with the homeless population is as important to us as the donations — it reminds us we're all human beings regardless of our circumstances."
According to Banuelos, Count on Me exemplifies the true spirit of a family foundation.
"The Mora children are highly involved," she explained. "This helps teach them why it's important to participate in their community and allows them to observe the impact their time and resources can make."
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