In 2005, when Ashlee was only six, her family’s house caught on fire. They lost everything. She wanted to help other kids like her, cope with this kind of extreme loss, so Ashlee started Ashlee’s Toy Closet. To date, Ashlee has distributed over 100,000 toys to children who have been affected by natural disasters.
We caught up with Ashlee, now 11, to ask her a few questions about her project.
What person or experience sticks with you from the beginning of the process?
I remember when my dad sent pictures from his cell phone of the Angora Fire when he was up at Lake Tahoe battling the fire. One picture was of several melted toys cars and tractors. I knew that before the fire those toys made that a child smile, and remembered how I felt when I lost all of my toys. I knew then I had to help all of the kids devastated by fires and floods.
How did you feel when you first learn of the problem you’re addressing?
Seeing those pictures made me feel so bad for the kids. From our fire I learned that adults usually replace the kid’s toys last, so I wanted to make sure that I was there to help put a smile on their faces! I knew how they felt and I had to help.
How do you feel about it now?
My organization has helped a lot of kids smile with the over 100,000 toys that we have passed out. Ashlee’s Toy Closet is one of the only organizations founded by a kid that helps kids after fires and disasters.
Who is your inspiration to keep going?
Every time I see a child that Ashlee’s Toy Closet has helped it puts a chunk of happiness in my heart. I always remember the little smiles and think about the many more I can help if I continue on with Ashlee’s Toy Closet. My motto is the more smiles the better!!!
Can you describe the moment you knew you were actually making a difference?
A very shy three-year-old girl came to our first toy drive in Lake Tahoe after the Angora Fire. She and her family had lost their entire home in the fire. She wouldn’t even look at me as I was trying to talk to her. I helped her brothers pick out new toys and asked her if she liked puzzles. She nodded but still wouldn’t look at me. I picked a puzzle for her and when I gave it to her, she started to cry. Her mom said the puzzle I’d given her was one of her favorite puzzles that she’d lost in the fire. I knew from that moment on that what I was doing was right. I keep that little girls smile with me all the time.
What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project?
In 2008 we collected and purchased hundreds of new toys and electronics for kids affected by the Fernley Flood, where a levee broke and flooded an entire town. One night someone cut the lock on my trailer and stole all of the new toys and electronics. I was devastated and thought that all of my work was lost and there was no way I would ever be able to re-collect and help the children. Once the horrible news got out I was able to collect more than I had ever collected before. I learned that there are more good people than bad people in the world. I also learned that I live in a great community and my mission was able to continue.
What’s been the biggest lesson throughout the process?
I have learned that no matter what your age is you can always make a difference in your community and world. If you keep pushing through the hard times it will lead you to success.
What advice do you have for other kids who are having a tough time getting their ideas off the ground?
My motto is never give up and always believe in yourself and your mission. Always keep pushing and striving to make your mission a reality.
What’s next for your project?
My next project is to fundraise for a Bus that we can call Ashlee’s Toy Closet – Help on Wheels. This would allow me to reach more children in their own communities and deliver the help personally. I want to touch more kids in more areas especially after floods, tornadoes and hurricanes. After those disasters it’s hard to reach all the children involved. I will continue to send toys out every day as requested by families and fire departments to those in need, but in the future I feel the bus is necessary to deliver smiles.
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