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Ontiveros: A college girl gets up close with the homeless

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Ashley Yong heads off to college in a couple weeks.

Like any incoming freshman, the suburban Darien teen’s time has been occupied buying school supplies and linens for the dorm room she’ll have at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo.

One thing sets Yong apart from other first-time college students, though. She’s also busy getting the non-profit she just started – Give A Box – ready to help the homeless.

“It’s been absolute madness,” Yong says cheerfully. (Full disclosure: I met Yong while I was an instructor at a program she attended last summer.)


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Creating a non-profit at the same time as she was beginning college wasn’t Yong’s original plan. Initially she had an idea to do something kind once and that would be it. But that’s not how things turned out.

While saving money for her senior prom, Yong decided that the cash could be put to better use. About twice a month she and friends would head into Chicago, and Yong always was struck by the homeless she’d encounter.

While others might step over them or avoid eye contact, Yong did not. Because she let herself see them as human beings just like herself, what she saw were people who could use basic, everyday items.

Why couldn’t she be the one to provide that?

Yong decided to put together boxes that she’d distribute to the homeless along Lower Wacker Drive and State Street. She went online for advice on what items would be helpful (T-shirts, toothbrushes and toothpaste) and included things she herself found useful (lip balm and bandages). Spending $214.74, she was able to fill 20 boxes with supplies and non-perishable foods.

Approaching the person who would be the first recipient, “Oh yeah, I was incredibly nervous,” Yong says. Would the box be well-received? No worries; the people were so grateful.

“It gave me a rush,” she says. “I didn’t want to stop at 20 boxes.” On the way home, she saw others who could have benefited from her boxes, but none were left. “That crushed me,” she says.

Those experiences and what happened next fueled the non-profit. Yong put a video of her distribution on YouTube, simply to let her friends (she kept her plans quiet, not wanting to “guilt trip” any of them into skipping their prom, too) see what she had done. Instead, it went viral. To date, it’s been viewed 188,000-plus times. Her actions won the praise of everyday people and celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Nicki Minaj, all urging her to keep going. A GoFundMe campaign brought in more than $6,000. With that, a non-profit was born.

On Sunday, Yong and Give A Box (www.giveabox.org) will be doing the giveaways again. This time she’ll be joined by about 40 volunteers and different organizations are helping. Some items have been donated. This time handwritten notes will accompany the supplies and food, enough for 100 boxes.

The plan is to continue distributions during her breaks from college. But her academic majors – journalism and business marketing, with the plan to get a certificate in nonprofit management – indicates this isn’t a fleeting interest.

It’s not just the homeless she wants to benefit, either. Handing the box to a recipient is an important part of the process. Yong wants her volunteers to get up close to those who need, and hopes the experience will make them “better persons.”

And maybe they’ll see the homeless as she does: people in need of help, folks who could use a little kindness.

Email: sueontiveros.cst@gmail.com

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