By AMANDA BEAM
At first glance, some might not peg 14-year-old Makenzie Smith as a hero. Talking with the other teenagers gathered in the gym of Louisville’s Home of the Innocents, she looked like any other kid.
But Smith’s contributions to helping the less fortunate have been anything but ordinary.
As founder of Makenzie’s Coat Closet, Smith and her family have organized a yearly coat drive that, since its inception, has supplied more than 14,000 jackets, scarves, hats and gloves to people in need. Just recently, Smith visited the Home of the Innocents to distribute coats she had purchased with a $2,000 grant she received from being one of six recipients of the 2013 Power of Children awards.
In partnership with the Kroger Foundation, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis recognizes youth nationwide who have made a difference in their communities through these awards. In addition to the grant, Smith also received a partial college scholarship and will be featured alongside other young heroes like Ruby Bridges, Ryan White and Anne Frank for a year in the museum’s “Power of Children” exhibit.
“It’s very, very overwhelming. It’s huge, for one, to have a video and picture at the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, one of the biggest children museums out there,” Smith said. “It’s neat to know that you can be in an exhibit that has their stories in there and you’re having an impact on the world too, just like them.”
Smith’s mission began in 2007, when her second grade teacher at Borden Elementary School spoke to the class about those who were less fortunate and how everyday necessities can sometimes be taken for granted. The 7-year-old arrived home that day wanting to help. After talking it over with her parents, she decided providing warmth to the homeless and others in need would be a great place to start.
“As a second grader, you think you want this or you want that. At my age, you’re still like that,” Smith said. “But once you see the people who are wandering out on the streets, they don’t have anything we have, not even simple necessities such as a coat. You realize you should be so grateful for what you do have.”
In the organization’s first year of operation, Makenzie’s Coat Closet collected 79 coats from family and friends. The following year, the collection spread to churches, schools and businesses, allowing 275 coats to be amassed. Most recently, with more than 50 different collection sites, the non-profit receives between 3,000 and 4,000 donated items each year.
“Something clicked with her,” said Smith’s mother, Carrie Smith. “She wanted to keep going and get even bigger. It has snowballed into something that I could have never imagined.”
Mostly family and friends help Smith sort the coats and distribute them to their destinations. Storage, too, can be tricky. Smith admits her grandparents’ garage and her parent’s home office can get overrun with the trash bags that hold the coats. But in the end, it’s worth it to Smith, especially when she sees people’s smiles when they receive something they so desperately need.
From the beginning, the Society of St. Vincent DePaul in Louisville, received many of the donated coats. Other schools and organizations contacted Smith after hearing about her success and also are being helped through the drive.
“A couple of years ago, it was probably our third or fourth year, we got to set up a distribution day and we got to be there to hand out the coats to the homeless,” Smith said. “It’s even more overwhelming and emotional just to be there and hear stories of how people ended up where they are and how grateful they are of having someone care enough about them to bring coats in and to keep them warm during the winter.”
Now a freshman at Borden Junior-Senior High School, Smith is aware that changes are on the horizon for the organization. College will be here before she knows it, and while away, she still plans to play an active role in helping Makenzie’s Coat Closet continue to serve those in need.
Borden Principal Lisa Nale, who nominated Smith for the award, credited her student for sticking with the project. Many times, Nale said, people quit when confronted with adversity, but not Smith.
“She has stuck with this project for years. And that kind of dedication, I think, in a young person is very unheard of,” Nale said. “We have kids that do a lot of good things, but sometimes they are often prompted by adults to initiate that. She saw this from her own perspective, her own vision. It grew from a child.”
For more information, visit Smith’s website at makenziescoatcloset.com.