I’ve interviewed a lot of talented teens for this site over the past 2+ years, actors (like Sam Lant, Brandon Tyler Russell and Austin MacDonald) and musicians (like Burnham, Hollywood Ending and The New Royalty) who are also motivated to give back to their communities through charity work. Zach Bonner isn’t an actor, singer or artist … but he is a national personality now, thanks to the charity work he started doing when he was only six years old. Zach created the Little Red Wagon Foundation to help youth in need, particularly homeless youth. He’s now 15 and continuing the good work he’s doing.
ANTHONY: Let’s start with the story of how old you were when you first became active in community service work.
ZACH: I did my first project when I was 6 years old collecting food, water and supplies for the victims of Hurricane Charlie that was in 2004. In 2005 I founded the Little Red Wagon Foundation.
ANTHONY: I feel like more kids are getting involved in charity work earlier in life than they did even a decade ago, and you’re one of the prime examples of that, sort of a leader-of-the-charge. Why do you think we’re seeing this increase in youth involvement in charities of all kinds?
ZACH: I think kids and adults are realizing that kids can be active members of society.
ANTHONY: Your foundation’s focus started out on homeless youth. Is that still the main focus, or have you expanded to other populations and needs?
ZACH: Homeless youth are still the main focus. We do a lot with education, awareness and youth volunteerism but at the end of the day it all ties back into homeless youth in one way or another.
ANTHONY: Similar to that other wonderful charity, Blessings in a Backpack, you provide homeless youth with a backpack full of the essentials. But you also include some candy and a toy. Why?
ZACH: The backpack idea started when I was researching homeless youth. At that time it was hard to find many websites about organizations helping homeless youth. The one I did find that were going out and doing street outreach work usually had a list of items they wanted or needed to take to the kids. I decided to combine all the items that I was finding on different websites and put them all together into one easy package for the kids to receive. The outreach workers went out they could hand the whole backpack (sackpack) to the kids. In the process of my research I found that although they were meeting the basic needs of the kids they were not meeting what I call the kid needs. I wanted the kids to know that I cared about them not as a statistic but as an individual as a kid. We decided to put a small toy and candy in the backpacks. Through trial and error we developed the backpacks into what they are today and we concluded that a yo-yo was about as perfect of a toy as we could give. The development of the backpacks has always come from the feedback of the kids.
ANTHONY: Good that you’re taking the actual kids opinions into account. I’m still fascinated by your cross-country walk. Can you share some of the personal experiences you had during that trek, and what you learned from doing it?
ZACH: The walk was an awesome adventure and a great tool to raise awareness. I met a lot of interesting people and saw America from a different perspective. One day I am going to write a book about my adventure. My favorite part of the walks was always interacting with the homeless youth.
ANTHONY: I look forward to reading it! You’re now fifteen. Your commitment clearly has never wavered. You’ve been at this for how long? And where do you see yourself ten years from now?
ZACH: I will have been at it for 9 years Aug 29th. I hope in 10 years I will still be helping. I have to make a living and support myself eventually so I would like to go to law school and become an attorney.
ANTHONY: In 2008, you said “Some kids like to play baseball and some kids like to play football. But I like to do community service work.” Community service can be a 24 hour job, but everyone needs a break occasionally. What do you do when you need that break?
ZACH: I like hanging out with my family or friends.
ANTHONY: The Little Red Wagon Foundation works in a number of ways to help homeless youth. What projects do you have coming up?
ZACH: I want to do my glass box project at The Grove in LA to celebrate my 16th birthday.
ANTHONY: How can people across the country get involved with the Foundation?
ANTHONY: We have to talk a little bit about this honor you’re a Finalist for: The Peace First Prize. What’s the PFP all about, and how did you become a finalist?
ZACH: I am not sure how I learned about it but I am so excited to be a finalist and hopefully be a winner. The Peace First Prize will give me the opportunity to learn how to run my foundation better, how to be a better leader, and spread the word about homeless youth. It is like the Nobel Peace Prize for youth. Of all awards I think I want this one most because it will allow me to grow and give me the tool I need to do so. It is a huge honor.
ANTHONY: There’s a way people can help spread the word about the Prize and help you win it, right?
ZACH: There is a little misconception going on. The only way to win is through a very rigorous selection process. They do have an opportunity to help the finalist spread the word about the Peace First Prize and the finalist organizations. That is by recommending the finalist through a Facebook link. I encourage everyone to go and read about the work all the finalists are doing and sharing all of their stories with others. Of course I want to have LRWF featured in an article but I also want to support the other finalist and the work they are doing. We are all in this together and when one of us shines we all shine.
ANTHONY: Is there anything else I haven’t asked that you’d like to let my readers know about?
ZACH: There are over 1.3 million homeless kids in this country. The numbers keep rising. Some are homeless within families and some on their own. Never forget these are kids. They are no different from any kid you know. They need our help. They need your help.
ANTHONY: And my standard closing question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to someone who hasn’t read it to convince them that they should?
ZACH: I do not think I have a favorite. Right now I am reading 1984 by George Orwell.
Want to know more about Zach? In addition to the links he mentioned above, you can also hear another recent interview with Zach, conducted by my friend Sam Lant & his friend Mandalynn Carlson on his radio show BEYOND THE SPOTLIGHT. When you get to the page, click on the Archive link for the 8/31 episode (with guests Thomas and Brielle Barbusca, Dylan and Ellery Sprayberry and Zach Bonner).
And here’s the trailer for LITTLE RED WAGON, the movie based on Zach’s life and his walk across America: