Ayr’Reka Gilghrest was just 8 years old the first time she decided to help those in need.
It was her birthday, and she and her family went to Walmart so she could spend her gift money. But on the way inside, Ayr’Reka noticed a homeless man sitting outside the store.
Her mother, Latecie Gilghrest, said Ayr’Reka approached the man and told him it was her birthday. The man said he was sorry he couldn’t get her a present. She asked if he was hungry and said she would buy him some food.
When he protested, Latecie said Ayr’Reka told him, “No, I need to. That’s my blessing.”
Latecie said she has always instilled the spirit of giving back to her children, telling them doing so will give them God’s blessing.
Ayr’Reka spent the majority of her money buying him food and made sure he had money to eat for the rest of the week.
When they were leaving, Ayr’Reka said, “We need to do this all the time.”
That sparked a mission to help that they named Ayr’Reka’s Angels.
Some time after that, Ayr’Reka remembers noticing a number of homeless people in a low-income area where they were living in Georgia.
“It wasn’t pleasant seeing people on the side of the road, so I wanted to help out however I could,” she said.
She and Latecie took peanut butter sandwiches and water to them. Soon after, they made hygiene kits and delivered them to homeless shelters.
Now 17, Ayr’Reka is a senior at Tampa’s arts magnet Howard W. Blake High School, where she is in chorus and on the softball team. She is a singer-songwriter and also helps engineer the beats on her music.
But among her many passions, helping others is still most important. She continues to feed and provide hygiene bags to the community. Through Nov. 19 she’s accepting donations of food to make meal boxes for Thanksgiving.
Ayr’Reka said this has been the most successful year for donations. So far, she estimates they have enough to feed 10 families.
That success comes from a steady build. When they moved to Tampa in 2014, Latecie reached out to the social workers at Ayr’Reka’s middle school to identify families in need. They organized a back-to-school drive.
The following year, Ayr’Reka partnered with the school again to provide five families with Thanksgiving meal boxes and gave one family Christmas gifts for five girls, as well as a meal box.
She was also able to provide help to three families in the community and distribute hygiene bags.
Her philanthropy doesn’t stop in Tampa Bay. Ayr’Reka said that one year, they sent seven meal boxes out of state.
In the beginning, the Gilghrests were paying for the supplies out of pocket. Ayr’Reka would save her money from chores and even sell personal items to provide for others.
But that became too much to take on, so they started asking for donations on social media, where they also look for families in need.
That tactic worked. Now they have three sponsors: Vargas Law Firm, woman’s empowerment organization Tiana’s Tea and Rambuild Construction.
Ayr’Reka also garners donations from her softball team.
Her love of softball opened up another opportunity to help others. On a Facebook page dedicated to softball called Black Girls Can Play, she noticed that a team in Ghana, Africa, didn’t have proper gear, like cleats, or equipment.
So she started collecting donations of gear and equipment to send to them, even if it’s gently used.
“Anything that can help them pursue their career in softball,” she said.
Ayr’Reka will attend Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens, where she will play softball.
She said she plans to pursue a career in education because she always wants to help people.
“I guess it’s a feeling of joy that I get that I can reach out and help someone in need,” she said.