Using the modern magic of social networking, a Mitchell High School student has collected hundreds of donations for a Pasco nonprofit — and she does it all in the name of old-fashioned faith.
On average, five children a day are removed from their homes in Pasco County, leaving situations of abuse and neglect to face an uncertain future.
"Sometimes kids come here in the middle of the night, with little more than the clothes on their backs," said April Putzulu, communications manager at Eckerd Community Alternatives. "Or they might be carrying what little they own in a trash bag."
Often their first stop on the road to a new life is Eckerd Community Alternatives, a nonprofit agency that provides child welfare services, foster care programs and youth and family services in Pasco and Pinellas counties.
Upon their arrival at Eckerd in New Port Richey, many of these children are taken to a special area called the Room of Hope, which is stocked with clothes, socks and underwear, toys, toiletries, backpacks and other necessities they need to make a fresh start.
Kaitlyn Martin knows a little something about Eckerd Community Alternatives. The agency enabled her parents, George and DeeDee Sheldon, to become foster parents to two children, one of whom — 4-year-old Reagan — they recently adopted.
Kaitlyn is a proud big sister.
"Reagan and I are really close," she said with a smile.
When the agency that gave Kaitlyn her little sister needed something of its own, the 17-year-old Odessa resident sprang into action.
"My mom got an email saying that the Eckerd Room of Hope needed socks and underwear," she said. "Whenever there's an opportunity to help, I'm right on it. And I have a special place in my heart for foster kids."
Two weeks later, Kaitlyn had amassed 212 pairs of socks and 195 pairs of underwear to fill the Room of Hope.
"More than 100 children are being helped by Kaitlyn's donation," Putzulu said.
And she didn't do it alone. The moment that she learned about Eckerd's need for donations, she posted a call for the needed items on her Facebook page. She spread the word at school and called upon the services of her youth group at Generations Community Church in Trinity to do their part.
Soon friends, family members, classmates and parishioners answered the call, coming forth with donations of socks and underwear that Kaitlyn personally collected, keeping them in her room at home.
"My room was a mess for a while," she said with a laugh.
She encourages other young people to give to those in need. "Everyone can get involved, no matter what their age or resources," she said.
And for Kaitlyn, who also helped organized a church-based donation drive to collect teddy bears for hospitalized children, giving to others is a matter of faith.
"As Christians, this is what we do, it is our duty to provide for the needy," she said. "I take no credit for what I do. I give all the glory to God."
Richard Jenkins, Eckerd foster home licensing coordinator, said donations such as these make it possible for the Room of Hope to live up to its name.
"You should see the children's eyes light up when they come in here and get what they need," he said. "We work very hard to make coming to the Room of Hope an enjoyable experience."
"These children did not ask to be abused or neglected," Putzulu added. "We want to provide for their every need — and to shop here with dignity."
As Kaitlyn Martin toured the Room of Hope, she beamed with pride at the pile of donations that she delivered. Even so, her work here is not done.
"Every month I plan to find out what they need at the Room of Hope, and collect donations of that item," she said. "Whenever someone needs help, I'll do whatever it takes to get the job done."