When Alia Leonard’s little sister had a birthday party earlier this year, the 7-year-old from Sandy brooded until she broke down in tears.
"You can’t be happy if you know other people out there don’t have good birthdays," Alia said.
Alia’s subsequent donation campaign, Simply 7, started with the a modest goal to procure seven bags of basic necessities to hand out as birthday gifts to seven homeless and working poor children every month. Since her first event in Easter, the young philanthropist has steadily built her donation base and continues to plan donation events. It was longevity her mother did not expect from the youngster.
"First I told her that she could use her allowance to buy things for the homeless," Colleen Leonard, Alia’s mother, said. "I thought for sure that she’d get tired of it after the first time, but she’s only getting more excited about it."
Alia began asking how to help the homeless after seeing panhandlers on freeway ramps. When her mother and father explained the complications of giving money directly to the homeless, Alia took the next step.
"She overheard me and friend who works at the rescue mission talking," Colleen Leonard said. "She got a chance to go see the ladies who work there and the homeless people and what they do to help them and walked out saying ‘Yeah, I want to do that.’"
Colleen Leonard’s friend was Lisa Wolse, the rescue haven supervisor for the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, a homeless services nonprofit funded by private donors and nearly 40 area churches. Wolse taught Alia how to advertise and ask for donations. By Easter, Alia had collected more than 1,200 items spread across nearly 100 bags to hand out to indigent children at the annual rescue mission Easter banquet.
"For the women separated from the children, it made a huge difference in their lives," said Wolse, who operates the women’s and children’s shelter. "It gave them into the insight and compassion of God through this child who did everything on her own."
Alia’s mother was supportive of her daughter from the beginning, but did not want to invest money or time into what seemed like a well-meaning, but fanciful, childhood dream.
"When she said she wanted to do this, I said, ‘Great, but I’m not funding it, I’m not working. If you want this, you work for it.’"
Though Colleen helps her daughter maintain the Simply 7 blog and drive her daughter around to pick up supplies, Alia does the majority of the work by herself. She draws her own advertising flyers to post on church bulletin boards, asks for donations and packs and hands the bags to the needy and the shelter workers.
The bags are stuffed with donated materials such as personal shampoo bottles, toothbrushes, socks and toys. The items come from wherever Alia can find them; her father’s office donated socks and her little sister’s kindergarten class made a fleece blanket. Most people donate cash for Alia to buy the supplies herself.
Though Simply 7 is in its infancy, the influence is climbing. A church in Wisconsin, home to the Green Bay native Leonards, is trying to get their youth group to follow suit, and a Florida church is trying the same. Lisa Wolse is looking to make the birthday plan a reality at her shelter, where Alia’s gift bags fall into every available hand.
"The long term goal is that every child has something to show for their birthday," Wolse said. "On Easter, we ended up having more children than we did bags. It’s our desire to reach as many people as possible, and this child helping children is helping people see compassion in the community."
The next event planned for the mission is a Pioneer Park banquet on June 9 sponsored by Subway restaurants. The event typically serves 1,200 meals to as many homeless between 11 a.m and 3 p.m. Alia plans to have bags for all of them. She hopes more media coverage at the event will connect her to more donors, but fears to take the spotlight from the people she’s trying to help.
"I don’t want them to get [the story] wrong," Alia said. "I’m afraid they’ll think it’s about me."
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