Sixth-Grader Raises Awareness, Funds, for Homeless

Published February 3, 2010

Zachary Bonner is only in sixth grade, but he’s already casting a big shadow.

For the past four years—since the ripe old age of 7—Bonner has been working to help underprivileged kids through a nonprofit organization he created, the Little Red Wagon Foundation (LRWF).

After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2004, the Florida Virtual Academy student started looking for ways to help students his age who were suddenly homeless.

“I had decided I wanted to make backpacks for homeless kids, and started reaching out to corporations for donations,” he explains. “I found out I needed to have a 501(c)3 organization in order to be more effective with the backpack program, so I founded the LRWF, went to the IRS, and received my tax status.”

Since then, Bonner—who lives in Tampa with his mother Laurie, a mortgage broker—has branched out to help not just homeless children but disadvantaged children in general. One of the LRWF’s outreach projects is making sure they have school supplies.

Mature Beyond His Years

So far Bonner—who says he wants to be an Ivy League-educated attorney when he grows up—has distributed more than 2,000 backpacks, filled with food and supplies, to homeless kids nationwide. Bonner also provides supplies, books, and even candy to help teachers inspire student participation in schools with large populations of low-income students. These supplies are distributed by Teaching Tools for Hillsborough Schools, a foundation dedicated to serving Title I schools in Hillsborough County, Florida and other organizations nationwide.

Bonner estimates he’s raised $200,000 to $300,000 worth of supplies and cash since 2005, “but it’s hard to put a number on it because a lot of what we raise is in-kind donations.”

In 2006 and 2007, Bonner helped kids in FEMA trailer parks in Louisiana by raising money for school supplies and hosting holiday parties. By working with other community service organizations and asking companies to donate items such as Christmas hams, he distributed toys and gift bags full of school supplies to approximately 1,500 families.

Four years ago, in an effort to inspire others, Bonner started a project called 24 Hours, in which kids all over Florida simulate being homeless for one day in order to raise funds and awareness. In 2006, approximately 50 children statewide participated in the event.

Walking for a Cause

Walking takes up much of Bonner’s time—something he started doing a few years ago to draw attention to the plight of homeless families. In 2007 he walked the 280 miles between Tampa and Tallahassee. Later, he completed a longer walk, from Tallahassee to Atlanta, to raise money for Habitat for Humanity. For his community service work he received a Presidential Service Award from former President George W. Bush in 2008.

Last summer Bonner walked from his home in Florida to the White House, gathering hundreds of homeless kids to walk the last mile with him.

“I want to keep doing the LRWF and helping kids,” Bonner says. “I am working on a group project with another organization called Fund a Field. They build soccer fields in Africa. So we are going to work together and do something for a school or orphanage in Africa. I am really looking forward to that.”

Bonner hopes to become the youngest person ever to walk the 2,225 miles from Florida to California, a journey he started on December 26 “to raise a lot of awareness of homeless youth and do a lot of projects along the way” by recruiting kids and adults to walk 10-mile portions with him. As part of his project he offers grants to groups he has chosen in cities along his walk, such as homeless shelters.

Community Service

Along the way, Bonner spends time talking to school assemblies about the importance of community service and youth volunteerism.

“I am collecting letters for President Obama, asking for his continued support for youth homelessness and youth volunteerism,” he says “and I hope when I complete my walk across America he will allow me to present him with the letters.”

A video journal detailing Bonner’s fundraising walks is available on his Web site, Bonner would like to inspire other kids to get involved in their communities. His goal is “to do as much as I can to help underprivileged youth, to try and be a positive example of the power of kids, and to have fun doing it.”

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.