Whenever she gets a little chilly, Charlize Lopez knows she can simply crank up the heater in her family’s Sugar Land home or throw on a comfy sweater for some much-needed warmth.
She also knows that not everyone in Fort Bend County is that fortunate. Her subsequent mission to provide warm clothing for those in need led to a recent honor at the state and national level.
Lopez, a 14-year-old Sugar Land resident and eighth grader at Quail Valley Middle School in Missouri City, was one
of 100 students nationwide recognized for outstanding volunteer service during the 25th annual Prudential Spirit of Community Awards celebration on May 4. The program, in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), named Lopez as Texas’ top middle school youth volunteer in February.
In addition to a $1,000 scholarship, each winner was given $2,500 to donate toward local COVID-19 response efforts or a nonprofit organization of their choice.
“I didn’t think something I was simply doing was taking that much recognition – there are so many more people out there who have been doing more, but somehow I got the recognition,” Lopez said. “I didn’t expect anything to come out of it other than the appreciation from giving clothes out to everyone.”
Lopez said her project, the “Warm Coats, Warm Hearts” drive, has collected more than 2,000 cold-weather items during the past four years to donate to community members in need. She never meant for it to become so popular, saying the project began as “a wish.”
Lopez said St. Laurence Catholic Church, her home church in Sugar Land, conducts an annual “Wish Upon on A Star” drive in which they encourage the congregation to fulfill the wishes of area children in need. So in 2016, an 11-year-old Lopez chose to fulfill the wish of another 11-year-old girl who had one simple request – a fleece jacket.
“I was touched because her choice of a gift was an everyday need and not a toy,” Lopez said. “It made me think of all the children struggling through each day, battling it out in the cold.”
That moment drove Lopez to launch “Warm Coats, Warm Hearts.” She began by writing letters to her school principal, her mother’s workplace at Ridgemont Early Literacy Center in Houston and her Traditional Karate Center dojo asking for permission to set up collection boxes there.
In order to further spread the word, Lopez persuaded members of a broadcast club at a local middle school to film her talking about her mission. She also made fliers to explain her project to her classmates.
“If there’s a girl my age braving it out while I’m sitting in my room with the heater up to 70 degrees with some blankets, I’ve got to do something about it,” she said.
For about four weeks beginning in late November each year, Lopez has asked everyone to gather clothes in the various donation boxes and emptied the donation boxes each week. After each donation drive, Lopez has handed out coats, blankets, scarves and food at a homeless shelter with the help of her father and 19 other families.
Lopez has donated leftover items to a shelter for domestic violence victims and a youth immigration detention center.
“It was a bit hard to understand in the beginning as to why someone my age would prefer to get clothes rather than something materialistic – many children on Christmas Day, the last thing they want to see when they open up their gift is clothes,” she said. “But I’m fortunate to have warm clothing and a heater in the house or blankets that I can rely on to keep me warm. Then I just think about all the people out there who are braving it out (without those).”
It’s not the first time Lopez has been recognized for her efforts. Just a year after beginning “Warm Coats, Warm Hearts,” she was among eight Fort Bend ISD students recognized in July 2017 by the Lone Star Leadership Academy Alumni Council.
“We admire these young leaders for their ability to assess the needs of the communities they serve and find meaningful ways to address them,” NASSP CEO JoAnn Bartoletti said in a news release. “At a time when everyone is looking for optimism, these students are a bright light for their peers and the adults in their lives.”
“Warm Coats, Warm Hearts” may have started as a wish, but it’s become a wish come true for people in need. Lopez is happy about that.
“The most important thing is to find a cause, and find your drive and purpose behind it,” she said. “…You just need to understand why you’re doing it – as long as you keep in mind why you’re doing it, you’ll be able to succeed.”
Lopez wants to keep succeeding in helping others.
“Our differences are exactly what we need to help each other, because the first step in making a difference is understanding our boundaries and what I can do in order to close this distance,” she said. “It’s up to us who are more fortunate to help those who are not.”