Girl in Action: Amanda Thomas Uses Creative Re-Gifting to Benefit Domestic Violence Victims
At just 17 years old Amanda Thomas began her own charity, The Big Re-Gift, to benefit women and children at her local domestic violence shelter. A senior at T.L. Hanna High School in Anderson, South Carolina., Amanda is one of 51 students across the country to be recognized by the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards as an outstanding teen making a difference in her community. In all, she has raised more than $10,000 worth of clothing, toiletries, and household furnishings, and she's refurbished two rooms at the shelter. Teen Voices' intern Megan McPhilemy spoke with Amanda about her inspiring work and how volunteering changes lives!
Teen Voices: How did you become part of the Youth Volunteer Corps of your local United Way?
Amanda Thomas: I was following my big brother's example. He got involved in United Way when I was in 5th grade because he had a lot of friends in his class who were involved. When I was in 8th grade, he asked me if I wanted to come to a United Way volunteering event. I went and helped out at the event, and when I looked around me, I saw everyone having so much fun!
I didn't realize volunteering would be like that. I thought it would be more serious. At the next meeting, I signed up to become a member.
TV: What inspired you to start donation drives for domestic violence shelters?
AT: It all started when we were presented with the opportunity to become part of the Siegler project. Mr. and Mrs. Siegler had donated $200 of start-up money for each student to start their own charity. I had two friends who were older than me and we decided we wanted to do something together. We had several meetings and came up with a few ideas, but we hadn't found something we were really passionate about yet. One day we went on a tour of different places that could benefit from our project and we visited the local shelter for domestic violence victims, Safe Harbor II. Seeing the women there really touched our hearts. Last year, when we were re-decorating one of their bedrooms, someone in the shelter asked me where I go to school and when I told her, she asked if I knew her sister who goes there too. I realized that I knew her sister slightly, and I was shocked to realize that something like this can affect anyone. I really love helping out there and the women are so sweet to me. It's the littlest things that make them smile and I'm happy to make them smile.
TV: What does Safe Harbor II do for victims of domestic violence?
AT: There are rooms for women and their children to stay if they need emergency shelter, as well as food, medical care, and counseling. Safe Harbor II also helps women and their families get their lives back together by helping them look for a new place to live, a new job, or to get back into school.
TV: How did you come up with the idea for the Big Re-Gift?
AT: The Big Re-Gift was an idea for how we could benefit the women as much as possible with the little money we had. We started thinking about how we're all guilty of re-gifting stuff. For example, I don't have my ears pierced and sometimes people forget that and give me earrings, so I usually re-gift them. We thought, if people started giving these unused gifts to the women, we could give them so much without collecting any money. The gifts help to make the place homey. The women don't want to be there, but they have to be. Just the fact that we've redone rooms and made them brighter and happier makes the residents feel better; they feel at home. The children always want to help out with whatever we're doing and it just touches my heart to be there.
TV: Were a lot of people aware of the problem of domestic violence when you approached them?
AT: I don't think the issue itself is a surprise. People know that domestic violence is a reality but it's a shocker for some people to hear that some situations can be so severe that women and children are actually forced to go to a shelter. Some people think, "Oh, the woman can leave and it'll be fine." But sometimes that's not the case--sometimes the woman and her children need greater protection. It's a surprise for many people that things can get that bad.
TV: Why is it important to help women and children suffering from domestic violence?
AT: It's very important to the women and children suffering from domestic violence that they know that the community cares. Domestic violence can happen to anyone. You might not realize it, but the next victim could be your next door neighbor or someone at school. I think it's especially important that women help each other out because you never know who could be in that situation someday. I know, because my aunt was killed due to domestic violence when I was in the first grade. Having her in my life one day, and her life taken the next showed me that domestic violence is unexpected and can happen to anyone.
TV: How responsive were people and businesses to your requests for donations?
AT: Most of them were really great and just said, "Give us the contact info" or they asked us to fill out a donation form. We had a summary sheet with information about Safe Harbor II, what items they need, and the work we're doing. Most of the businesses were really great and had us fill out forms and set up pick-up dates and others gave us things right away. Some of the bigger businesses were more hesitant and said, "Oh, it'll take a while for you to get anything." We would fill out forms anyway, but if it was a really big corporation, we usually didn't hear back from them. But last year we went to a building supply store that's part of a national chain looking for new window paneling because they were in really bad condition at the shelter. We talked to a lady at customer service and she said, "Sure fill out a form, but I don't think you'll hear back from them because you're just a small teen charity and usually, they help out only the really big charities." We started telling her about Safe Harbor II and how we're helping them and she told us that she and her children were victims of domestic abuse and that her children still have to live with their grandparents for protection. She said that what we are doing is really amazing and it is really touching to her. She personally gave us a donation so we could buy the stuff that the company couldn't give us. Most of the local businesses were awesome and we've had lots of money and clothes donated.
AT: My biggest obstacle has been dealing with all the rejection from businesses when asking for donations. Most of them have been awesome and did say "yes," but there were those that said "no." You can be so hurt because you may have been asking for the one thing they really need at Safe Harbor II and you're really hoping the company will say yes. When they say they can't help, you really want to let your face fall. You're so hurt because you really wanted them to say yes, but you have to go out there, be optimistic, and know that it will be ok. For every business that says no there are five that say yes. It's hard to deal with at the time. But in the long run, it's all turned out okay. Rejection is just one small thing along the way and you can't let it stop you from reaching your goals. We should decide whether to put the no/yes in quotation marks or not. One instance in this paragraph has them and one does not.
TV: How do you balance all this great charity work you're doing with being a senior in high school?
AT: I owe a lot of it to my mom. She really helps me keep everything balanced, as well as my dad and my brother who are very supportive. This year, we got giant cabinets for the kids' rooms at the shelter and my family helped us load everything. My friends and my boyfriend are always supportive as well and they think what I'm doing is cool. They don't ask me to ditch what I'm doing to come hang out. Last year when I was working with my two older friends, Jordan and Meredith, to collect donations, they were like my big sisters. Every week, two or three days after school, we would go and try to hit five different stores to ask for donations. We had the greatest time! Sometimes we would have dinner together afterwards. We also did drama together before we started the Big Re-Gift, but I loved hanging out with them because I look up to them so much. We had fun going out and asking for donations and it's not as time consuming as people think. I'm also a very organized planner. I'm organized so that I can do everything I want to do as well as help out. I didn't go anywhere for spring break this year, so I spent lots of time at Safe Harbor II. But it was so worth it! I painted and hung out with the kids, which was awesome for me because I want to be an elementary school teacher. Volunteering and helping out the shelter is definitely not something I dread doing--it's something I look forward to!
TV: Do you have a role model who inspires you to keep going with your work?
AT: I have lots of role models. I look up to my brother a lot as well as my friends Jordan and Meredith, but my biggest role model is my mom. She is always really busy working and has so much going on that she barely has any free time, but she is always willing to help me with anything. She says, "I'll always be here to help you." I look at my mom and whenever she's working, whatever she's doing, she always does it with a smile. That's something I want to do as well. I want to give back and help out and do it with a smile to show people that I'm not just doing it to get volunteer hours, but because I really want to help. My mom is such an amazing, strong woman, and I really look up to her.
TV: It must be really exciting to receive an award for all the great work you've done.
AT: I was so surprised! I was at school in my anatomy class, and I don't normally text in class, but my phone started buzzing and it was my dad. He said, "Guess what? You've won something!" and I had to know right then--I couldn't wait! He told me all about the Prudential Award and the money and the trip to Washington that I had won. I was freaking out, but I don't think it really hit me until I came home and read all the information for myself. The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards is a program run by Prudential Financial and the National Association of Secondary School Principals to honor secondary students making outstanding volunteer contributions to their communities. Thousands of people applied for the award and only 102 in the entire country received it. Only 51 of the recipients are high school students, and I represent South Carolina. It's amazing! So much has happened since I received the award. It seemed like I was getting a letter every week. A senator contacted me for an interview while I'm in Washington and I also received a letter from Obama and the President's Volunteer Award. All this stuff is happening at once and it's incredible that it's all because I started volunteering. It just shows me that if you give back, you get greater gifts in return. It's such an amazing opportunity for me to be going to Washington and I'm so excited. I leave my house tomorrow for Washington at about 5 a.m.!
TV: How has volunteering and charity work affected your outlook on life and your future?
AT: Volunteering has given me a greater appreciation for what I have and it's made me realize that it can be gone at any second. Especially in our economic times, life can get hard. There aren't a lot of jobs out there and some people are depressed because of it. Sometimes it feels like a relief to volunteer because you kind of get in the zone, especially when you're asking for donations. You're trying to show people that this is a great cause and that you're optimistic about what you're doing. You try to push all the bad stuff out and at the end of the day; it just makes me feel better. I love doing it with my mom and I think it's made our relationship a lot stronger. We're in the car, driving to these places together and we start talking about more than just "how was your day?" We have real conversations. Now I know that when I grow up and have kids I want them to volunteer and have the same relationship that I have with my mom and my family. Volunteer work influences other people's lives and is something I definitely want to stick with.
TV: What are your plans for the future?
AT: My next project at the shelter is to create a children's reading room at the shelter. As for me personally, I've always enjoyed working with kids and I think I'll keep doing it. I am going to Anderson University in my hometown and want to be an early childhood education major. I'll be close by, and no matter what, I'll probably always be a part of Safe Harbor II. But I may also get extra help from someone at the United Way Youth Volunteer Corps to slowly take on the Big Re-Gift. I've just always had a heart for helping out with kids and before the Big Re-Gift most of the volunteer stuff I did was working with kids. My friends have been interested as well and I think if I could get them as interested in it as I am, then it will be something we can all do together and stay with it.
TV: How can other girls find their passion for volunteering as you have?
AT: Volunteering is something that sounds almost like a job that takes up time. But it's a passion. You don't realize it until you get going, but volunteering can be fun and while you're having fun, you're benefiting others. It doesn't even matter if you're with your friends or family. I've done volunteer work alone before and had a great time. Time is the most precious thing in our current day and age, and people are always so worried about keeping to their schedule. They don't realize that things might not be this way forever. You might not always be the cheerleader or on the football team, and there is a lot going on around you. If more people slowed down and took the time, they would realize that you need to give back as much as you've been given. Girls need to take a second and realize that volunteering is really fun and they would probably really enjoy it if they tried it—even just once.
For more information about the Big Re-Gift project or Amanda, click here.
For more information about the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, click here.
For more information on Safe Harbor II: http://safeharborsc.org/aboutsh.htm
For more information on domestic violence, visit:
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