Lithia Girl Gathers 12,000 Items for Homeless
A chance meeting with a homeless man has led a the third-grader on mission to help
While everyone else turned their heads, pretending the homeless man on the park bench outside a Sarasota restaurant was invisible, 4-year-old Jessica Valdes was overcome with curiosity.
She watched the homeless man prepare a makeshift bed on the bench, and then boldly approached him.
"Being so friendly, I asked him what he was doing," said Jessica, now 8 years old.
The homeless man patiently explained to the Lithia girl that he was homeless and was preparing to sleep on the bench that night.
On the drive home, Jessica, now a third-grader at Bevis Elementary, bombarded her parents with questions about homelessness.
"She probably asked a hundred questions," recalled her mom, Julie Valdes. "She wanted to know why people were homeless and what she could do to help. She wouldn't let it go. She was obsessed with it. But I didn't know how a 4-year-old could help."
Coincidentally, that Sunday the family saw a donation box at their church for Volunteers of America. The church was collecting hotel-size soaps, shampoos and other travel-size items for the homeless.
"We researched it and decided Jessica could help by going to family members and neighbors, collecting things," said Julie Valdez.
"The homeless need small items because they travel a lot and don't want to carry big bottles with them," explained Jessica. "And the homeless shelters don't have those things for them."
That first year, the little girl collected 100 items for the homeless.
"Then it just snowballed from there," said Julie Valdes.
After speaking about the homeless to her first-grade class, the students collected 1,000 items at Thanksgiving. Then, last May, the University of Tampa's Elite Group, a student leadership group, learned of Jessica through her Facebook page and asked her to speak to their group.
"UT decided to sponsor her at their fall retreat," said Julie Valdes. "They collected 5,800 items. The boxes filled our entire garage. It was amazing. There were hundreds of toothpastes tubes and toothbrushes."
As a result, the family was able to donate 3,000 dental items to Mission Tampa's mobile dental van, which provides free dental care to the homeless.
In the four years since Jessica encountered the homeless man on the bench, she's collected more than 12,000 items for the homeless, which she puts into Ziploc bags she calls Manna Bags "because they're gifts from God," explained Julie Valdes.
Some of the bags are stowed in the family's cars. When they are driving somewhere and encounter a homeless person, Jessica hands them a bag containing soap, shampoo, lotion, snacks, a Christian booklet and a tuna salad snack-pack meal she purchases herself with her allowance.
Occasionally, when she can save up the money to purchase them, Jessica also includes McDonald's gift certificates in the Manna Bags. Julie Valdes estimates they've personally distributed more than 100 bags to the homeless.
"If you give them money, they might not use it for food," explained Jessica. "So I like to give them a meal."
"The people are always so grateful when she hands them one of the bags," said Julie Valdes. "They're very receptive. We haven't met anyone who hasn't been thankful."
"They say, 'Thank you, thank you,'" said Jessica. "I think they're surprised."
In the winter, the family also keeps blankets in the car to hand out to the homeless.
Jessica also donates the items to four organizations: Volunteers of America, which caters to veterans; Cynthia Pinckney Ministries, which feeds and clothes the homeless; Mission Tampa, which provides for Tampa's homeless population; and the Brandon Emergency Care Help Organization, which provides food and clothing to families facing emergency needs. In fact, Jessica was featured on a Volunteers of America poster to recruit volunteers.
"This whole thing has definitely been driven by Jessica," said Julie Valdes. "She just won't let it go. While other people just turn their heads, Jessica wants to help."
"It doesn't matter if you're big or small," said Jessica. "You can make a big difference."
Anyone wishing to donate items to Jessica's ministry can drop them off between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. at FishHawk Fellowship Church on FishHawk Boulevard. Or they can contact Julie Valdes at jessicasHomelessHelpers@hotmail.com.