By Virginia Dean
The philanthropic efforts of 7-year-old Bradford Elementary School student Preston O’Donnell have had far-reaching effects in the Upper Valley this holiday season, including nearly 20 different locations where local residents have brought their donations of socks to help those in need.
Begun as an effort to help her best friend who lost her home to a fire earlier this year, Preston’s campaign has resulted in nearly 5,000 pairs of socks (2,000 more than her original goal) that will be given to the local homeless and $2,000 to the Upper Valley Haven in White River Junction. Community members are still shipping their donations as of this week.
The Haven is a non-profit, private organization that serves people struggling with poverty by providing food, shelter, education, service coordination, and other support.
The fundraising effort has been contagious and area towns, in addition to those involved in Preston’s project, are likening the cause. In Woodstock, for example, Planning and Zoning Assistant Lynn Beach has placed a collection box in the town hall lobby for similar donations.
“Preston has inspired me,” said Beach. “She’s so young and aware and saw the need to help others. I thought her work should continue.”
As of Nov. 18, there are 54 pairs of socks donated including men’s, women’s and children’s, Beach said.
At the Haven, Laura Gillespie, director of development and commerce, noted that socks are “the single most-needed article of clothing for the homeless but are often the least donated item.”
“For all of us, staying warm starts with a clean, high quality pair of socks,” said Gillespie.
The challenges of poverty and homelessness in the Upper Valley are daunting, particularly when the weather turns cold and icy, Gillespie said.
“Preston’s campaign was a heartfelt reminder that a sock donation is an easy, affordable way to make a difference from someone who is struggling,” said Gillespie. “Her enormous donation will allow the Haven to provide everyone who needs socks with two pair throughout the cold weather months. Preston’s can-do attitude is an inspiration to the Upper Valley!”
Preston comes from a long line of hard work and community, according to her mother, Katie O’Donnell.
“We’re a family of veterans, firefighters, EMTs and mental health advocates,” said O’Donnell.
Indeed, Preston’s father is a firefighter who had been battling the blaze in which Preston’s best friend lost her home. He and her mother discussed ways that Preston could help her friend and, after researching, came across Socktober! an international campaign founded in 2011 to encourage children to collect socks for homeless shelters in their communities.
“Little minds are very impressionable,” said O’Donnell. “It’s important to teach them kindness from the beginning. We are not a wealthy family, but we strongly believe in working hard. When possible, it is very important to reach out to others and help them get on their feet, too.”
Preston’s collection of socks was packed into boxes and brought to the Haven by truck last week along with cash donations. Collection boxes were set up around the region. The monies will be used to support such services at the Haven as its food shelf program.
“I think our rate of food insecurity in Vermont is around 11%,” said the Haven’s Director of Operations Jennifer Fontaine. “We’re not a huge state but 11% of anything is really too big a number.”
Despite being tired from counting socks every night, Preston allegedly was excited about bringing the donations to the Haven. She related that she was able to jump on the boxes that threw up socks in the air as a result.
“Happy Socktober everybody!” Preston said. “That’s what I said.”
Preston had originally selected the goal of 3,000 pairs of socks because there are nearly 1,300 individuals experiencing homelessness on any given day in Vermont, as reported by Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“I’m happy that Preston was able to be a positive influence in the community at such a young age,” said O’Donnell. “She is a spectacular little girl who will go far. It’s important to use her ambition, leadership and outgoing personality to better serve others around her.”