Zach Bonner's latest project: life in a box

A teenage philanthropist is breaking through walls to help others.
Published April 4 2013


The box was like a greenhouse. Whatever the temperature was outside, the 8-foot walls of plexiglass magnified it.

During the heat of the day, Zach Bonner chugged water and relied on fans to deliver much needed air circulation. At night, he put on gloves and layers and pulled the edges of his sleeping bag closer to block out the cold.

Zach, the 15-year-old from Valrico who gained national fame when he launched his own foundation at age 7, completed the latest in his series of volunteer efforts Tuesday.

Zach lived in an 8- by 8- by 8-foot box outside Westfield Brandon mall for a week to raise awareness about youth homelessness. He encouraged others in the community to donate canned food items that he used to line the walls of the box.

The goal: to make Zach disappear.

At the end of the week, Zach and the Little Red Wagon Foundation had collected more than 6,000 cans that were donated to Metropolitan Ministries and Francis House.

Zach has dedicated his life to helping kids. But for the young philanthropist who always seems to be on the road, it can be hard to connect in person with others his age.

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Most teens don't run their own tax-exempt foundation. They don't understand when Zach ignores his phone for an hour because he's doing an interview with a news station. Or how, because he's so used to typing up business letters to sponsors, his texts are often carefully crafted with proper grammar while their texts rely on abbreviations and emoticons.

While they plan spring breaks at the beach, he preps for a monthlong tour of Asia where he'll speak about youth philanthropy at middle schools and high schools. Most of the kids he's speaking to are older than him, but that doesn't stop them from being inspired. It's hard not to be when they learn all he's done.

This project came together just a few days before he entered the box. On the second day, he had gathered about 75 cans. By Monday, the donations had grown to nearly 5,000, neatly stacked in double rows and overflowing into tidy piles under a tent outside.

Donations came from all over. A Red Robin worker rode by on his bike and dropped off a bag of cans before encouraging his co-workers to do the same. Three elderly ladies drove an hour-and-a-half on Sunday to give to the cause. They heard about Zach on television and decided that's how they wanted to spend their Easter.

Sweetbay donated $1,000 worth of food, while kids cashed in their hard-earned savings, stockpiled from Christmas and birthdays, to help Zach reach his goal.

"It's great to see how many people have come out to help," Zach said. "It's really cool to see people from all spectrums."

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Many of the kids who stopped to chat said they were inspired by Zach's work.

"I think he's really an influence to other kids," said Kendal Meeks, 9, of Riverview. "It's a really great thing that he's coming here when he's supposed to be at home and in school, and instead is using a portable potty and staying in a hot box to help others."

Kendal and her brother Trevor, 12, volunteer at church and participate in food drives at school.

"Zach makes us feel like we can make a difference in the world," Trevor said. "Just because we're kids doesn't mean we can't help people."

Zach's listened to that feedback from his peers since he started speaking to middle and high school kids at age 6. They would tower over him by a foot or more and tell him how cool his work was.

"All of a sudden, I was taking a leadership role with these kids older than me," he said. "It was kinda strange. It's something we didn't count on."

He compares his passion for the foundation to any kid whose life is consumed by a sport: It's hard to break away and it dominates his schedule, but he loves it all. And though he's passionate about his work, some of the best moments are when those discussions veer off track and he gets to have real "kid conversations."

He had one such experience when leading a Google hangout from inside the box with about a dozen others his age. It started as a Q&A about the project but quickly turned to prejudice against redheads and then leprechauns and then vampires and mythical creatures.

"Sometimes it's hard to connect, because people are like, 'You started a foundation when you're 6. What do we have in common?' " said Zach, who's homeschooled. "It's difficult for them to look at me as someone their own age. I love it when we're able to connect on that level."

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Every day with the foundation is spent trying to help his peers, but when he's not traveling, it's hard to find other teens to hangout with. Most of his friends are other youth philanthropists who live throughout the United States and the world.

"I'm constantly in communication with friends through texting and Twitter and the Internet," Zach said. "But if I do have spare time, I can't really call someone up and say, 'You wanna hang out?' "

He might not have the traditional teen experience of high school homecoming dances and crushing on the girl whose locker is next to his, but he has attended black-tie events, an awards show in Los Angeles and even his own movie screening.

"I have plenty of experience in the formal arena," said Zach, who occasionally takes a date. "With all the traveling, it's amazing who you'll meet."

Despite all the differences, there's one thing Zach and his peers have in common: homework.

"After this project is done, I have to buckle down and do a whole bunch of schoolwork," he said. "I've got a couple weeks' worth of Spanish and biology assignments waiting for me."

Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.