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Lithia teen earns national recognition through charitable efforts

LITHIA — Like any average 4-year-old, a curious and inquisitive nature guided Jessica Valdes through simple activities.

On a trip to Sarasota with her family one evening she put her curiosity to use and stopped to talk to a homeless man sitting on his bed.

"For us as parents it was a little awkward because most tend to kind of not make eye contact and walk away," said Jessica's mother, Julie Valdes. "But something in the moment just told us to stop and let her talk and she was just asking him questions and he was answering very honestly."

Ten years later, Jessica has attended numerous public speaking engagements and collected more than 80,000 toiletries and sundries through her own organization, Jessica's Homeless Helpers.

"I just wanted to help him be able to have the same privileges I did," said Jessica, who will be a freshman at Newsome High this year. "The next day I saw a box at church for the homeless veterans and I started collecting soaps and shampoos for them and then after that I set up a jar on the kitchen table and we would use it to buy soaps and shampoos for Volunteers of America.

"It just started getting bigger and bigger."

The teen's organization — which has partnered with various other local ministries and charities such as ECHO of Brandon, Seeds of Hope, Mission Tampa and Cynthia Pinkney Ministries — is run mainly out of the Valdes' garage, where Jessica, along with friends and family, gather to put together hygiene bags for those in need.

"My soccer friends will come over and since they need volunteer hours, we'll sit and talk and count items," Jessica said. "We try to make fun out of it."

Though Jessica's Homeless Helpers began as a way to help homeless people, both Jessica and her mother agree that the items collected, as well as the mission behind them, expand far beyond the homeless.

"It's not necessarily all homeless people," Julie Valdes said. "It could also be a family that just lost their house. Yes, it's about collecting stuff for the homeless but it's kind of twofold in that the other part of her ministry is that even if you're small, or don't have any money, or don't know where to start, you can still do something to help somebody else."

While sharing her message at a speaking engagement for Mothers of Preschoolers, a member of the audience was moved to nominate Jessica for the "50 Beautiful Children Campaign," a photography campaign for Beauty Revived magazine that local photographer Kelly Haymes was chosen to photograph.

Haymes chose Jessica to participate over two other quality nominations.

"Her passion immediately jumped out to me," Haymes said. "Growing up, my mother had a close personal friend that spent much of his life on the streets."

That personal connection validated Haymes choice to photograph Jessica for the campaign, which will be in the August issue of the magazine.

"Knowing that there are good people, especially such a young girl that is giving of her free time to help others that really need it, warms my heart," Haymes said.

Contact Kelsey Sunderland at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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