Raya Bronz, 11, Has Raised $10,000 to Fight Hunger and Homelessness | Kids VT | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Raya Bronz, 11, Has Raised $10,000 to Fight Hunger and Homelessness

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Published November 15, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Raya Bronz - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Raya Bronz

According to the Dalai Lama, "Our prime purpose in life is to help others." It's a sentiment that Winooski fifth grader Raya Bronz, 11, takes seriously. Since 2019, Bronz has been making colorful bookmarks adorned with that inspirational message and others, including a quote from Anne Frank: "No one has ever become poor from giving."

She sells the bookmarks, along with a variety of items made by her family and friends, at outdoor concerts and farmers markets. All proceeds go to local charities. The precocious preteen dubbed the group of makers "Raya's Homeless Helpers."

From the beginning, Raya has been documenting the group's progress on the Raya's Homeless Helpers Facebook page. It includes photos of the bookmarks as well as numerous checks to the food shelf and sweet handwritten notes in Raya's distinctive handwriting. "Dear food shelf," reads one from November 2020. "It was a hard selling season because of COVID. I will do my best to keep selling bookmarks and helping how I can." Accompanying it was a $64 check.

The next month, Raya's efforts got a big boost: WCAX-TV ran a story about Raya and her helpers, and an anonymous donor stepped up with a $5,000 contribution.

In July of this year, Raya announced on Facebook that she and her helpers hit the $10,000 mark. Some of that money went to the Committee on Temporary Shelter and Spectrum Youth & Family Services, but most of it benefited the Winooski Food Shelf.

In a November Zoom interview, Raya said her philanthropic project grew out of a game she was playing with a friend when she was 8. They were pretending to help fake pets in a fake store. "We were trying to raise money to help them," she remembered, "and then we both got the idea, 'What if we did this for real people?'" They went outside and set up a stand to sell bookmarks. "It was going really, really slow," she said. "And then some people pulled up in this minivan, and those were our first customers." The original bookmarks, she said, "were like little jagged slips of paper ... We cut up construction paper, and that's how the bookmarks started."

Raya's bookmarks - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Raya's bookmarks

Raya's process has become more sophisticated over the years. Now she mass-produces the bookmarks by painting large sheets of paper, cutting them up and affixing a loop of yarn. She writes the messages herself, carefully printing the quotes in black ink.

She sells the bookmarks for $2 each. She also sells earrings made by a friend and various hand-sewn creations — clutches, ditty bags — made by her great aunt.

Raya started giving the money to the Winooski Food Shelf after she realized, in second grade, that the reason her school serves breakfast and lunch to all students is because so many Winooski kids qualify for free meals from the federal government. "I realized, like, there are kids that don't have enough food, like we do," she said, "and I wanted to help them out."

Raya is justifiably proud of the cumulative impact of her donations. "Every three dollars gets five meals, and overall, the $7,227 I've donated to the Winooski Food Shelf has provided 12,045 meals for people in our community," she said. "I just feel so happy that I'm helping people."

Food shelf coordinator Linda Howe, a retired professor, confirmed that Raya is helping to meet a huge need in the community. "This time of year, the lines go around the building," she said.

The food shelf is an all-volunteer-run organization based at the United Methodist Church of Winooski; 95 percent of the donations it receives go directly to buying food for distribution. When the group launched in 2005, it was supplying food for a dozen families. Today it serves 250 families a month — roughly 1,300 people.

Howe purchases most of what the food shelf gives out through the Vermont Foodbank and stores like Costco. "I buy food by the pallet," she said. On a recent Costco run, for example, she bought seven 100-pound cases of chicken.

Howe first met Raya in 2019 and has been impressed by her creativity and determination. "Isn't she just an amazing girl?" she marveled. Howe pointed out that many people are deterred from volunteering if they can't help out in person. Not Raya. "She figured out how to make a huge contribution at her age," Howe said. "She's setting a shining example."

Want to see Raya's work? Search for Raya's Homeless Helpers on Facebook. Find more information about the Winooski Food Shelf at winooskifoodshelf.org.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Making Her Mark"