Forging Social Entrepreneurship — a Middle Schooler’s Enterprise

By: Shane Byler

Initiation / Atlanta

It’s early January, 2015. Your hometown’s professional basketball team — the Atlanta Hawks — is on a winning streak and just clinched a win. Walking away from the stadium, you see a homeless woman and her children on the street. What do you think? Better yet, what do your children think?

Charlie Plyler, of Atlanta, GA, thought he would like to give them Valentine’s Day gifts.

It was an instance of inquisitive compassion and exactly what the 11-year-old boy’s father, David Plyler, would hope to see in his son. He was so pleased that he encouraged Charlie to follow through with his idea. So the young son of a social entrepreneur (whose father challenged him to achieve a higher number through collaboration with friends) decided on the goal of compiling 200 valentine boxes, filled with goods and hand-written notes to give homeless people in a little less than a month. The next year, with more time to plan, he set the goal of 2,000 boxes. Each goal was realized by more than 150%.

Upon their much expanded second-year success, Charlie and David Plyler realized Homeless at Heart could gain traction elsewhere.

The idea clicked with a group of volunteers and students, from Loveworks Leadership Inc. in Norman, OK, who visited Atlanta in late June.

Loveworks team members took three “high school students that we wanted to invest more in,” said D. Smith, afterschool director. “We believe that you grow a lot through intense experiences so we like to do these little leadership trips.”

The four day “growth opportunity” involved visiting two companies’ headquarters, historic landmarks, young entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs. Charlie Plyler, now 13 and part of a young entrepreneur development program, was one of whom they met with.

Following an interview with a mutual acquaintance — 10-year-old entrepreneur Kathryn Bauer, who at age 9 developed her own brand name, Curious Kathryn, by selling handmade candles — the Loveworks leaders mentioned they would like to participate in a service project before flying home Saturday afternoon. So Bauer and her mother directed them toward Charlie and David Plyler, who succeeded in putting the energetic volunteers to work.

They met at the Plylers’ house around 11 a.m. Saturday; made a run to buy supplies; and then, working as an assembly line for about 45 minutes, filled 100 plastic bags with basic goods and necessities, similar to Charlie Plylers’ valentine project (but with bags juxtaposed for boxes). David Plyler arranged for the parties of this joint effort to visit Seven Bridges to Recovery, an Atlanta-based organization that reaches out to the chronically homeless.

Afterward, “the Loveworks people, and Charlie and I went around on this caravan and handed out those bags,” David Plyler said. “That was our introduction to Michael Hirsch [executive director] and Loveworks.”

Continued Collaboration / Norman

The team was interested in young Plyler’s story. He’s in the same age range their program caters to; furthermore, Loveworks Leadership already hosts an annual outdoor slumber party called Box City to raise awareness of homelessness. Similarly, the Plylers were impressed with the leaders they met, expressing an interest in bringing Homeless at Heart to Oklahoma City.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better situation to expand with,” David Plyler said.

He pointed out that it’s an apt project for aspiring your leaders and entrepreneurs; moreover, he sees potential for a symbiotic learning experience.

With the convenience of factors, it wasn’t hard to garner enthusiasm from the rest of Loveworks. It’s a natural initiative to partner up with. Anyway, Hirsch, Smith, et al., returned home and, examining the potential need, learned there is a significant number of homeless students in OKC.

According to a report from Oklahoma City Public Schools, during the 2014–15 school year there were 3,187 students considered homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act of 1987.

In the eyes of Loveworks leaders, this constituted a need as well as a specific focus for the proposed sister initiative. So they invited Charlie and David Plyler to attend Box City on October 21.

Loveworks kicked off their official involvement on this “crisp, cool” night with a warm greeting for Plyler and by completing 170 shoebox valentines, to go toward their goal of 3,200.

“We rotated through these [stations] where you build it, make it, design it, write it,” said Angela, 13, a Homeless at Heart ambassador for Whittier Middle School. “You just fill up the boxes with the goods, and we decorate the boxes and have them ready to send off.”

When Charlie Plyler finally took stage at about 10:30 to give a speech, he was received with an enthusiastic middle school uproar.

“He came on stage, and the applause was pretty cool to see — just our students supporting him and cheering him on,” Smith said.

But the next several months will not be solely fun and mischief. These must entail a certain amount of good-spirited hustling . . . collecting shoeboxes and basic goods — white T-shirts, toothbrushes, etc. — as well as decorating, organizing and packaging.

And although team leaders will provide some assistance and direction, it’s up to the students to accomplish their goals — which, however, is a seemingly fit dole of responsibility.

For instance, Julia is a 13-year-old homeschool student. As of November 7 had already canvased about 30 businesses, such as hotels and dentist offices, to solicit donations of soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste. One hotel she approached donated 800 items.

Angela and Elise are 13-year-old ambassadors at Whittier Middle School. Along with Loveworks representatives, they met November 9 with a board of 14 school administrators and faculty to discuss soliciting the school’s involvement.

“I thought our committee was very receptive to their presentation,” Jason Sanders, assistant principal for eighth grade, said. “Several of them mentioned that it was heartwarming to them to have some students come in on their own initiative with some community service.”

The plan settled upon at Whittier is to utilize “over-time,” which is students’ first, 45-minute study period, generally used to “address the social and emotional needs” of students and to try to develop a public servant mentality as well as provide other academic assistance. Angela and Elise plan to start with an announcement November 16, asking students to bring donations to over-time.

Sanders reported that the school’s main assistance herein will be through cooperation and allowing storage space for donations; the two ambassadors developed an organized, well-thought out strategy which they presented successfully and plan to execute.

Developing such exemplary ambition in young adults is, in itself, much of the benefit Smith strives for in conducting projects, such as Homeless at Heart.

“I think anytime you give a student a leadership opportunity, it makes a big difference,” Smith said. “When you give students an opportunity to lead and to do something that really matters, it’s game-changing. Because what they find is that their efforts have a real result and their efforts really do make a difference. I think that’s key.”

Perhaps one white T-shirt, toothbrush and random valentine card on November 14 each year may not seem like much. But thanks to communities’ development of compassionate young leaders and social entrepreneurs, Homeless at Heart, in only it’s third year, has spread from an idea Atlanta to capturing attention in Norman, Oklahoma, Washington D.C. and Birmingham, Alabama.

Charlie Plyler’s ever-shadowed first goal of 200 has since risen to 5,000. And although he doesn’t see himself working first-hand with Homeless at Heart for life, Plyler says he could imagine sticking around for ten years. That’s an impressive claim, considering he — and many of the participants — have only been alive for just over 10 years.