When the Hontz family lost their Hanover home to a fire last summer, it wasn't long before they started missing the basic necessities. First, it was a toothbrush. Then, a Band-Aid. But for Lauren Hontz, who was just 9 years old at the time, all she really wanted was a blanket to call her own.
The family quickly received more blankets than they could possibly use, which gave Lauren an idea. If all she wanted was a blanket after her fire, then wouldn't other people want one too? With this in mind, she asked her parents if they could donate the extras.
"I didn't think much of it," said Jennifer Hontz, Lauren's mother. "We put the blankets in a bin to save for later. But then, things started taking off on their own."
After just one month the fourth grader at Monarch Academy Public Charter School had started Lauren's Luggage, a charity that helps families in the aftermath of fires and other emergencies. Packing bags full of essentials such as toiletries, pillows and of course, a blanket, as well as toys, Lauren hopes to comfort those who are in a situation similar to the one she faced not even a year ago. And according to her mother, it's not much more complicated than that.
"There really isn't an elaborate explanation," she said. "Lauren took a difficult experience and immediately thought of someone else. All we could do was throw ourselves behind it."
With the help of her mother and the rest of her family, Lauren, now 10, has been able to deliver her luggage to places such as the Johns Hopkins Pediatric Burn Center and local fire departments. And while her efforts started out small, they have quickly gained noticed.
In March, Lauren learned that she's one of 80 semifinalists in the nation for Huggable Heroes, a program sponsored by Build-A-Bear Workshop that recognizes young volunteers who are trying to make a difference in their communities. Build-A-Bear hopes to encourage youth to continue doing service and inspire others to do the same. The 10 winners will be announced this summer, receiving a scholarship as well as a monetary donation for the charity of their choice.
According to Kim Busch, manager of Build-A-Bear's Annapolis location, past Huggable Heroes have raised $9.4 million for their causes and collected 316 million items to be donated.
"It's amazing how many people have been touched by the program — not just in the kids' local communities, but all over the world because of their service," said Busch.
For Lauren, knowing that she reached someone is exactly what makes her work worthwhile. "The best part is the feeling after we give stuff out," she said. "I like feeling like I helped someone."
Lauren isn't able to give her luggage out directly due to privacy concerns, but Bob Belford, chaplain of the Lake Shore Volunteer Fire Company in Pasadena, has seen the impact of what she's doing firsthand. After receiving a call a few months ago about a house fire, Belford decided to take along one of the bags Lauren had given him.
"When I arrived, the family was standing in a neighbor's yard, watching their home burn," he said. "The little girl was worried about her blanket and stuffed animals inside. When I handed her Lauren's bag, her eyes just lit up."
In 51 years with the fire department, Belford has never seen a charity touch people the way Lauren's did that night.
"For a child to be doing something adults never thought of, that's pretty amazing," he says. Belford keeps one bag with him and another at the station, and he says he'll ask for more as soon as he runs out.
Moving forward, Lauren says that she hopes to take her donations to every fire department in the state. But after that, she's open to wherever the luggage takes her.
"I don't know how long I'll be doing this," she said. "But I want to keep helping people for at least a really long time."