Natalia Andraka is a Buchholz High School student, but during her free time she is the president of a club that makes tie-dye T-shirts, colorful bracelets and uplifting notes for the homeless.
Andraka, 16, got the idea to start this club during the summer, but officially began work with Warm Hearts this August when school began. The club has almost 300 members now.
On Thursday, Andraka and the other officers in the Warm Hearts club met at St. Francis House to deliver care packages offering backpacks, soaps, pencils, blankets and their signature tie-dye shirts. The trip to St. Francis House marks the first time that the club has formally given donations to the homeless.
“All of the donations come from the meetings at our club,” Andraka said. “We meet twice a month and we make everything during the meetings. We tie-dye all of the shirts, we make all of the bracelets and notes, everything is done by us.”
Three Gainesville businesses also sponsor Warm Hearts by donating personal items like soaps, blankets and shoes.
Derek Akey, Katherine Lobato and Shad Buchanon serve as officers, and the group of sophomores divide all the work equally to help the club be as successful as possible. Shad Buchanon said that he can see how Warm Hearts is changing him.
“I’ve become more humble, I think,” Buchanon said. “Before, I liked having nice things. Now I come here and it’s not about having nice things. It’s more about being happy, having food, things like that. I have become more down to earth because of this club.”
The group delivered their handmade shirts to one room at the St. Francis House and saw immediate results from their hard work.
“Someone here today walked past us and they thanked us for our donations, and it just felt really nice,” said Lobato, 15. “It’s better than getting material goods, just getting a thank you or seeing appreciation from someone for what you’ve done.”
Don Hill was eating at St. Francis House when the Warm Hearts club came through the room. He said that receiving donations like this feels good and that reading the letter that the club wrote for him was very emotional.
“It brought me to tears, it really did,” Hill said. “It really hit home for me personally.”
The letter read, “Believe in yourself, because I believe in you.”
Their teacher, mentor and sponsor, Brandon Sedgley, said he thinks the club gives Buchholz students a way to get out and give back to the community. Sedgley teaches AP World History, AP Government and AP Macroeconomics at Buchholz High School, but Andraka just refers to him as ‘the best person ever.’
“Natalia, and the kids that kind of brought this up, were very passionate about it,” Sedgley said. “On my end, I’m not going to deny them this opportunity because this is something great. Not just for them, but for Buchholz and the Gainesville community.”
Warm Hearts is partnering with the Humane Society in January and expanding their work to homeless pets. The club’s next goal is to create a journal based on a series of interviews that will create an ecological model of homelessness in Gainesville. They want to try to find the root of the homelessness problem.
Andraka said that her main goal, though, is to bring joy to people in any way she can and to destigmatize homelessness.
“We just try to help as much as we can,” Andraka said. “Through positivity, we try to give them the brighter side of life, because you only live once and this is a hard time.”