Third-grader McKinlee Haddox saw a problem. She helped organize a food drive.
RIPLEY — McKinlee Haddox was traveling to her orthodontist appointment in Charleston when she peered out the car window and saw three homeless people under a bridge. She immediately wanted to help them.
McKinlee, a third-grader, asked her mom Amber Haddox if she could give the people money, but she didn't have any cash on hand.
"Can you give them your debit card?" McKinlee asked.
Amber drove her daughter to the orthodontist for two years — she saw homeless people nearly every trip. This was the first time McKinlee saw people sleeping under bridges and standing in the road median with a droopy cardboard sign in hand asking for help.
McKinlee was persistent about helping, she kept asking questions.
"I wanted to make sure they were OK in case if they were sick and they needed like medicine to help them get better," she said.
Her mom later explained homelessness as best as she could to her curious 8-year-old. She wanted McKinlee to know that homelessness doesn't only exist in Charleston, it's in Jackson County, too.
"Here in Ripley, you don't see them," Amber said.
According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 1,341 people were experiencing homelessness as of January 2020 in West Virginia. Of that, 104 were veterans, 58 were families.
Her daughter still wanted to help them. Amber picked up the phone and started making calls. At first she was looking for ways to help in Charleston. When she got on the phone with Ripley Mayor Carolyn Rader, a light bulb turned on.
There are Blessing Boxes — boxes that people can fill with food and hygiene items for anyone to take — scattered throughout Jackson County. Ripley City has a room in city hall that's designated to hold donations for the boxes in the area.
People who want to make donations to the Blessing Boxes can fill them up directly or drop off items at Ripley's City Hall.
After coordinating with Rader and Fairplain Elementary School, Amber made her daughter's vision come to life: a week-long food drive for the Blessing Boxes. The school challenged its students to bring in one item for the boxes.
A letter notifying students and parents about the food drive came home a week before it began. McKinlee's plan was starting to unfold.
"It meant a lot to me as a parent that they're making this happen because she had the idea," Amber said. "She wanted to help."
Once the food drive started, the school counselor, Megan Noble, and a student helper would visit classrooms in the mornings and gather donations. To help the kids understand why the school was asking for donations for the Blessing Boxes, she had lessons on the importance of giving. After talking with students, Noble said she saw more items come in.
On Thursday morning, Nov. 4, the room where donations for the boxes live was empty until people hauled in five boxes filled to the brims with cans, granola bars, toothbrushes and deodorant.
McKinlee couldn't stop smiling, neither could Rader. She said she was overwhelmed with McKinlee's generosity.
"It won't take long before this is all gone," Rader said, especially with Thanksgiving around the corner.
— Katelyn Waltemyer (she/her) is the General Assignment and Enterprise Reporter for Jackson Newspapers in Jackson County, West Virginia. Have a news tip on local government or education? Or a good feature? You can reach Katelyn at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kate_Waltemyer.