CARY, N.C. – Most kids dream of the big score for their birthday. They’ve got the latest and greatest video game system headed their way, and after their friends show up for a party, some cold hard cash and gift cards as well.

From the age of six, Cze-Ja (pronounced SEE-ja) Tam received money to help buy goats and maybe even a cow or two for her birthday. That’s exactly what she wanted, not for herself, necessarily, but to help make someone else’s life just a little bit easier. Tam dutifully collected the money every year and sent it to either Partners International or African Inland Mission, two Christian charity organizations that placed the animals where they were most desperately needed.

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Information on Showers of Grace, a non-profit organization founded by Carnegie Mellon University women’s tennis player Cze-Ja Tam, can be found here.

Every birthday party became a fundraiser. For $9 or so, she could send a goat … but cows were pretty expensive. Some might feel that Tam was missing out. She was not.

“Every year with the money I got from each birthday, I picked out what I wanted for which country,” said Tam, who served as a captain of the Carnegie Mellon University women’s tennis team this year as a senior. “Every year, that was my gift.”

Tam’s mother was born in Hong Kong and her father in China, and both are devout Christians. She and her whole family grew up in the church, with the kinds of values that encouraged the kindness she exhibited on her birthdays. Tam has taught Sunday School for years at her home congregation, the Community Chinese Church of South Bay in Torrance, Calif.

“I’ve grown into this family and this church,” she said. “Our family’s priority is to help others.”

From the comfort of her own home, Tam had been involved in charity work for more than a decade when she was part of a short-term mission that traveled to Kenya in December 2006. The stories she had always heard became all the more real on the ground in that African nation. It was, she says, the most humbling experience of her life.

Here’s the thing, though. In describing the journey, there was no pity in her voice, no dreadful tales of gloom and despair. There was instead a profound sense of admiration for the country and its people, and how children would fashion their own toys out of wire and scraps of trash.

“It was amazing how they were able to use all these different resources that we would consider junk and make it into things that they would really enjoy,” Tam said. “Over here, we take advantage of what we have, but we don’t realize how much we have.”

While in Kenya, Tam worked at an orphanage. Again, she was deeply impressed.

“They were willing to learn so much,” she continued. “They’re so excited to learn new things and know more about the world and where I came from. Their excitement and their happiness was nothing you could see over here. You can’t really compare. It’s amazing how one little thing can make them smile. Over here, we’re so needy and materialistic.”

Once she returned to the States, Tam set out to raise funds to help her new friends in Africa. The biggest of the events she organized was a bake sale and free tennis clinic, but while they were successful, she wanted to step it up even more. At the ripe old age of 16, she founded Showers of Grace, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to aid African schools and Chinese seminaries.

Over five years, Showers of Grace was able to raise $100,000 for its causes.

Tam graduated from Carnegie Mellon on May 20 before flying to North Carolina that night for the NCAA Division III championships. Then, on May 30, she will begin nursing school at Columbia. Looking out for someone else is a part of who she is.

“I feel most of us should use what we have, our abilities and skills, to help others,” Tam said. “We’re given all these things that we should actually share. … I grew up loving to work with children. I’ve worked in the nursery at church. I’ve babysat for several families. I’ve taught Sunday School.”

A recipient this year of the Arthur Ashe Leadership and Sportsmanship award, the world is a little bit better place because of people like Tam. She puts things into perspective with the gentle spirit and a wisdom far beyond her years.