Eight-year-old Maren DeSonia told her parents that instead of getting presents she really only wants her aunt to come visit her on Christmas Day.
That’s the kind of kid she is. And it’s one of the reasons she took on her community service project so seriously when her second-grade teacher, Colleen Strain at Jefferson Lighthouse, assigned it to her. The project, part of the school’s International Baccalaureate program, focused on helping students understand their community better and to teach them to be risk takers.
The class watched a video on homelessness, what causes it and how basic needs go unmet – like brushing your teeth. Amanda and Maren talked about HALO, and how they help homeless people. Maren said she would like to collect toothbrushes, and the two set a goal for collecting 50. And after the first day they decided to raise their sites a little higher – to 150.
Instead, they collected 1,006, and they're thinking of holding a collection next year, too.
Maren’s mom, Amanda Aebly DeSonia, knew this project would challenge Maren, but they were in awe of how the community responded to her call for donations. Business leaders printed up signs, Piggly Wiggly owner Ralph Malicki jumped in and allowed Maren to set up a collection box at his store on Washington Avenue, local orthodontist Dr. Chu donated toothbrushes, Wilson’s Coffee and Tea in Racine also served as a donation drop off location and Ayra’s gas station owner Akil Ajmeri in Caledonia donated 200 toothbrushes. Even Maren’s schoolmates donated toothbrushes and toothpaste.
Asking people for donations was a little difficult for Maren.
“She’s an old soul, this is not normally in her comfort level,” Amanda said. But they worked on that. Maren posted videos on her Facebook page. “You amazed us,” Maren said in a video. “We had so many people that cared enough to donate even more than one toothbrush; they gave two, three, and four toothbrushes.”
This week the two contacted HALO Director Brenda Thomas, and they toured the facility with her so that when Maren does her presentation Monday, she’ll know about the stigma of being homeless.
“We talked a lot about our ideas of why people are homeless and what a homeless shelter is,” Amanda said.
Maren initially thought HALO would be a cold institutional-type place with cots lined up along the walls and people wearing uniforms. But as she walked around the home with her mom, she realized the reality of being homeless is much different.
“Everyone has chores they have to do, but you have to make a plan to make their life better,” Maren told her mom.
Brenda explained to Maren and Amanda that HALO provides resources for people to get back on their feet. They also looked at the internal workings of the facility, which houses 100 people.
“Imagine how much toilet paper, cold medicine, diapers and Kleenexes they go through,” Amanda said.
Maren left the facility feeling confident that she was helping her community.
All week people dropped off toothbrushes at her home and they were amazed at how much the community cared about this project.
“We looked at the community we live in and we see how people are so kind,” Amanda said. “Every day, the packages kept coming from people I haven’t seen for 20 years. There are so many lessons to be learned from this, but the biggest lesson Maren learned was how many people that wanted to support what she was doing.”