“Please help us help these kids. They are not asking for toys, so assume they are in extreme need.” These words, hurriedly typed and printed to fit atop a small, cardboard box in the employee lounge at my work, hit home. Most probably didn’t see the box. Others dismissed it. I, however, knew from the second I saw it that I had to do something.

They listed the children and their clothing sizes. A three-year-old boy, eight-year-old girl, and a thirteen-year-old girl. Inside of the donation box, after a few days, there was nothing. Then a shirt for the eldest girl. I wanted to buy something for these kids right from the start, but I work two days a week at a job that pays slightly higher than minimum wage. Buying something right away was just something I couldn’t afford to do.

I ended up spending about $30.00, just shy of half my paycheck, on fleece pants and a sweater for that boy. Our store didn’t carry his size at the time–every article of 5t clothing was sold out. So, I did research. I looked up how to convert the sizes from infant to children. I learned that the “t” means that there’s extra room for things like diapers, so it isn’t a straight conversion. And even then, the store where I worked had hardly anything in those sizes. But I bought him the best of what was there.

The reason? Of course, I didn’t want the poor child to freeze- winters in my part of the country are brutal- but I read that paper, and it hit home. I had been through very much the same thing in my past, and now that I am much better off, I wanted to give back.

When the market crashed in 2008, my father was a self-employed construction worker building houses and my mother was a stay at home parent, who hadn’t worked since she had given birth to me. Generally, this statement is enough to make others understand, or at least give them an idea of what happened to my family. However, given my appearance and where I live, it usually won’t fully convey struggles that my family and I endured. There were times, such as one winter that I will never forget for the rest of my life, during which we would have to chose whether or not we paid for heat, or for food.

Anyone to which I told that statement couldn’t possibly imagine the grueling process of declaring bankruptcy, the false joys experienced each time my father started new work projects, only for them to disappear with the blink of an eye, thanks to untrustworthy business partners. We didn’t have a car for a few years because we couldn’t afford the price of inspections and to fix issues with our car. My dad pawned off my mother’s jewelry, and some of my grandfather’s- some of the only things that we had of his after he passed. At the time, we truly had no other choice. We borrowed from friends, family, but what I will always remember was the aid we received from our community.

Without our local food pantry and church, we probably wouldn’t have survived. It’s as simple as that. To afford winter coats, we got clothing vouchers. We got Christmas and Thanksgiving baskets from our church, complete with food and gifts. They gave us fuel assistance, and some other money on top of that. Sure, when I didn’t understand the graveness of our situation, I remember going to school in fifth grade and sharing that I had the worst Christmas ever because all I had gotten was a doll. Little did I know that my parents didn’t buy my presents that year. But now, looking back I’m incredibly grateful to those people who went out of their way to buy gifts for my sister and me. I realize that getting presents that weren’t my favorite was far better than not getting anything, than having to understand what my parents were going though. To this day, I can’t entirely believe how selfless and generous others can be.

And that is what keeps me going. I take those horrible experiences and the generosity of others and use it to push myself forward to do the same: help other people. I’ve decided that it is my passion, something that I love to do more than anything else, and this has shaped my decisions more than any other factor in my life over the past few years.

Before this experience, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I had ideas, just like anyone else, but none of them were really practical, or anything that I was likely to stick to for a stretch of time. I toyed with the idea of becoming some type of scientist and spending my life in a lab, but that was quickly destroyed once I experienced high school science teachers. Then, I had my Sophomore English class, and we learned about the American Dream and poverty, and how the systems were stacked against so many people–people that were experiencing similar and far too often worse things than I had. The combination of this class and my experiences got me thinking.

These people needed help, just like I had, and it was clear to me that big changes would need to be made. Through my friends, I experienced the effects of mental illness. I learned about people from all walks of life from my peers. I searched tirelessly for ways to help them, my friends. And after hours of researching mental health on the internet, sharing tidbits of the worst of the worst for me and what I did to cope, and discovering programs such as The Butterfly Project (http://butterfly-project.tumblr.com/) for coping with self harm, I realized that I was making a difference.

Amid the chaos that was my sophomore year of high school, I realized that my small and often unskilled attempts lifted a weight off of others’ shoulders. I learned that I truly made a difference to them.

From that point on, I have started taking steps to bringing myself closer to the life of helping others that I want. I have started taking psychology courses, hoping to eventually become some type of therapist for children and teens struggling to cope with their lives and mental health. I’ve participated in food drives and fundraisers for the organization in my town that gave my family vouchers. I’ve donated old, warm clothes to charity. All these little things, I have learned, make a huge impact on the lives of others that one may not realize when they donate, say, a can of food or a pair of gloves. Every little bit counts, and every action that you make has the potential to change the life of someone else.

I am an example of that. And I encourage every one reading this to take a step, not matter how small, to help someone in need.