The Wrap 4 A Smile Foundation has come a long way in the last five years, ever since Secaucus resident Kevin Williams founded the organization at age 15 in his mom’s basement.
Williams, a Secaucus High School student at the time, got help from his mother, Catharina, and local volunteers, and began to collect and distribute personal hygiene kits for Hudson County homeless shelters. The kits included such items as a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, Purell, and deodorant – necessary items that are often hard to come by in shelters and pantries that put more of an emphasis on food.
Five years later, the charity continues to grow as Williams, now 20, tries to bring its work into sharper focus.
“If people see a problem, they’ll acknowledge it. But [often] they don’t want to own up and be part of the solution.” – Kevin Williams
As part of the award, Williams, who just completed his sophomore year at George Washington University in D.C., will receive a $5,000 scholarship for his education.
In addition, Sodexo has awarded Wrap 4 A Smile a $5,000 grant to further its work.
Williams said the money will be used for two foundation projects: the Winter Chill Nutrition Program, to be offered to kids in Secaucus, and a “healthy snack program” that will target low-income youth in Hudson County.
Through both initiatives, Wrap 4 A Smile volunteers will distribute healthy, low-calorie snacks – fruit, nuts, etc. – to kids who may be more accustomed to snacking on junk food.
Williams estimates that Wrap 4 A Smile has distributed more than 50,100 hygiene kits.
Although these kits were primarily distributed in Hudson County shelters, in 2005 Wrap 4 A Smile filled a 20-foot container with hygiene supplies that Williams and his mother distributed to people who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
“Me and my mom actually traveled down to Texas [where many displaced families were evacuated],” he recalled. “And we were able to hand out the supplies from the container ourselves, which was very rewarding because we were able to speak first-hand with people who were directly affected by the hurricane.”
This work led Williams to branch out into other issues that affect the poor.
“Secaucus is a pretty middle-class town,” he said. “We don’t have lots of homeless people. But we have people who are barely able to get by. There are currently more than 500 school kids in Secaucus who receive a free or reduced-price lunch through the School Lunch Program. Now our formal goal is to fight poverty and stop hunger.”
In for the long haul
A pre-physical therapy major, Williams is now trying to professionalize the organization and its work – steps he hopes will eventually allow him to move the foundation out of his mom’s basement, which still serves as Wrap 4 A Smile’s headquarters.
“It’s been a challenge to establish ourselves as a legitimate volunteer group because when we started I was only 15,” he said. “Things were a little kid-ish; I’m not going to lie. But over the past year we’ve been trying to formalize the organization more.”
This summer, eight to 10 local foundation interns will help him collect donations for New Jersey shelters. Then they will travel the state with him to distribute the supplies.
Long-term, Williams said he’d like to work with the town to open a teen-oriented community center that would teach young people “life skills.” The center, he believes, would foster in teens a better sensitivity for social issues and give them the skills needed to address community problems.
Too often, he said, “If people see a problem, they’ll acknowledge it. But a lot of times they don’t want to own up and be part of the solution.”
A native of Indonesia who moved to Secaucus as a child after his mother fled the poverty of their homeland, Williams understands the lack of initiative. He said that some charity groups jump from cause to cause and don’t stick to any one issue.
“You don’t do that,” he said. “You build something up, stay there, keep building more, and make sure people know you’re going to be there for a long time.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.