ROGERSVILLE — Rogersville 8th-grader Dakota Waller knows from personal experience the struggles faced by economically disadvantaged families, and that's partly what inspired her to do something about it.
This past Friday Dakota and her mother Cathy launched a new program they're calling The Redemption Project, where they handed out bags of free toiletries to needy families in downtown Rogersville in front of "The Looking Glass" hair salon at 207 E. Main St.
The Looking Glass is owned Ann DeWitte, who is one of Dakota's youth group adult advisers at Hope Community Church in Church Hill.
Their first night was pretty slow
They only managed to hand out three bags of toiletries Friday, and then someone contacted them later on The Redemption Project Facebook page, and they arranged to meet that person after church Sunday and deliver a fourth bag of toiletries.
But, their expecting once word gets out about the program that business will pick up this Friday evening.
The plan is to meet in front of the Looking Glass every Friday between 5-7 p.m. and hand out bags of toiletries to Rogersville's needy and homeless.
Addressing child homelessness
Dakota was concerned not only by the adult homelessness situation in and around Rogersville, but also the number of homeless students in the school system.
According to Hawkins County Schools Title 1 director Dr. Michelle Harless the number of Hawkins County's homeless students fluctuates, and has gotten as high as into the 60s, but currently there are 23 known homeless children in the school system.
One of the three people Dakota and her mom served Friday was a child.
"Most people focus on Kingsport, but Rogersville really has a big issue with that," Dakota said. "I know a family with an autistic son, and he wandered through their trailer park, so they got kicked out for that. Now they just sleep wherever they can."
Inspiration for The Redemption Project
It was another homeless Rogersville man who helped inspire Dakota to start The Redemption Project.
"Every day he would walk around Main Street and Walmart carrying these big bags, and people would just stare at him instead of helping him." she said. "I recently learned he used to have an apartment, but it's hard for him to stay in a place because he has schizophrenia, and a lot of people judge that. He also has a wife and children who are disabled. I've seen people throw things at him, and that really bothers me because they don't know what he's been through. He's been through more than any of them. ...It's just because of a disorder he can't help that he can't have a house like them."
Dakota's family has struggled as well, and that's why she feels especially passionate about helping people. For a time they were without a vehicle and had to walk everywhere they went.
She said some people in passing cars were cruel and would yell ugly things, and one person even threw a drink at her and ruined a new outfit.
There’s always hope for redemption
Aside from rounding up more "customers" Friday evening, she’s also hoping to inspire some folks to make contributions to the program and help it grow.
"The way I think of it, if you use it on a daily basis, then these people most likely need it too," she said. "The first thing you do in the morning after you go to the bathroom is brush your teeth. We need tooth brushes, toothpaste, toilet paper — if they don't have access to water and soap, maybe some sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer."
The items are packed in a reusable draw string backpack bag that they can get at the Dollar Tree.
Most bags contain shampoo, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a pack of tissues, a bar of soap, deodorant, Chapstick, hairbrushes, and combs. She's also collecting warm socks, gloves and hats to stick in bags as well.
There are also gender specific items such as feminine hygiene products for women, or razors and shaving cream for men.
Two happy customers
On Wednesday Dakota and her mom were at Walmart and saw two of the women who received bags on Friday, and they both still had their bags with them.
"They were just so happy because people would just look at them and then drive off thinking, oh I don't need to help them, somebody else will," Dakota said. "But, really, if everybody thinks that they're never going to get help. They're just putting that responsibility on somebody else. I've seen that a lot. I've been in that position on the side of a road."
"When you're going through a tough time you do things that you really need to be redeemed for, like begging on the side of the road, maybe doing things you know you shouldn't do just so you can keep a meal on the table."
Donations of products or money can be dropped off at the Looking Glass hair salon on Main Street in downtown Rogersville during business hours.