"I never thought such a simple gift, such as a hat, could make such a huge difference."
Donors from as far as Australia send brand-new hats to Anthony Leanna, 14, of Suamico, Wisconsin, who gives them to cancer patients in hospitals and clinics around the world. His four-year-old program, Heavenly Hats, has won many awards, including the 2003 National Jefferson Award for Public Service, and has been featured in several news publications.
What kind of philanthropic or volunteer work do you do?
Anthony: I started a program called "Heavenly Hats", which donates brand-new hats to cancer patients who lose their hair due to cancer treatments.
What is the name and location of the organization?
Anthony: The name of my organization is Heavenly Hats, and we are located in Suamico, Wisconsin, which is about five miles north of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Tell us about the project, especially who benefited from this work.
Anthony: I started the project about four years ago in order to help cancer patients who had lost their hair due to chemotherapy treatments and other cancer-fighting drugs. To date, I have donated more than 40,000 hats to over 160 hospitals and clinics around the world.
What inspired you to get involved?
Anthony: My inspiration was my grandma. I spent a lot of time in hospitals when she was going through breast cancer, and I saw a lot of the patients in hospitals without hair and asked a lot of questions. I knew that if I was in the hospital and was losing my hair, I would want a hat to wear right in the hospital. Many of the patients do not feel real well when they do get out of the hospital, and if they have a hat or two to wear when they go home, they will not have to make a special trip to a store to buy one. It was my goal to put a smile on the faces of people who were going through a very difficult time in their lives.
How did you first get involved? Give us some details.
Anthony: What I did was make fliers and made donation boxes. I went to local businesses and schools asking if I could place the boxes there to ask for donations of new hats. I would go back once a week and pick up the donations of the hats. I also emailed hat companies around the world asking for donations, and I received hats from as far away as Australia.
What is/was the best thing about your experience?
Anthony: The best thing about my experience so far is seeing the smiles on the faces of the patients when they are able to pick out a hat to wear. There is such a variety to choose from, and they really enjoy picking them out. I also receive many thank-you notes explaining that the hat has been a symbol of hope for them, just knowing that a total stranger cares about them gave them the courage to go on. It gives me such a great feeling inside. It is a feeling like no other that I have ever experienced.
What is/was the hardest part?
Anthony: The hardest part was getting people to take me seriously. Since I was so young when I started this, many people thought I would just collect a couple hats and quit, so some people were not willing to help out. The other challenge was paying for the cost of shipping the hats once my program had grown to the point of being able to ship hats outside of my hometown.
What was the biggest surprise?
Anthony: The biggest surprise was how large and fast my program grew. I had the hope of being able to supply a couple hundred hats to local hospitals and now have been able to help thousands around the world. I never thought that I would be able to help so many people.
What new things have you learned as a result of your experience and how have you changed as a result?
Anthony: I have learned not to sit by and do nothing when you see a problem just because you think there is nothing that you can do. I learned to have the courage to ask for help, which is something that I used to have a hard time with, but the bottom line is adults have more resources and are more than willing to help out when you need it.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of getting involved in philanthropy or volunteering?
Anthony: I talk to other kids about volunteering now, and I tell them that their age does not matter. Find something that they care about, and do something to help. I never thought such a simple gift such as a hat could make such a huge difference in the life of a cancer patient, but it did and continues to do so. You do not have to be an adult, strong, or rich to give; you just need to have a cause and a big heart.
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