Once homeless, this 14-year-old is paying it forward and giving back to shelters.
By Jesse Mintz
Photography by Craig Fritz
In the early mornings, Casey Phillips-Smith would wake to sounds of her son chopping, pouring and mixing in the kitchen. It would be another moment or two before she could orient herself.
A lot had changed for the Navy veteran and her son in the past three years. They’d gone from living comfortably supported by her stable job to unemployed and living in a room above a garage without heat or electricity during the recession. Eventually, they landed in a homeless shelter with only two duffel bags full of their possessions, before finding their way to the apartment they now call home.
And so, as Casey made her way to the kitchen—her mind still not released from the ups and downs of life’s roller-coaster—it was puzzling to find Donovan surrounded by molds and bowls full of olive oil and coconut oil, goat’s milk, aloe vera and lemon and eucalyptus extract.
In the middle of the kitchen, stood her son: not cooking, not baking but making soap.
For this 14-year-old, soap making was the result of a science project gone better than good. While stirring up his scented concoctions, Donovan discovered a passion that would inspire a business.
It started out with him selling soap with a portion of proceeds earned donated to poverty support groups. Then, as demand for his creative soaps picked up, he realized he’d rather focus on giving back than cashing in and started donating soaps to local homeless shelters—places for people experiencing the sort of hardships he and his mom had lived through themselves.
“When I donate my soap, I know it’s going to a good cause,” says Donovan. “Just knowing that every bar of soap helps a person, that’s one more step to making our community better and healthier.”
In total, his innovative venture has provided well over 10,000 bars of soap—each bar empowering another person to improve their hygiene, health and self-confidence.
And the world has taken notice. For proof, see his following on social media, awards for volunteerism and community work, not to mention receiving a letter of commendation from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michele Obama.
Donovan’s success is no surprise to his mom, who beams as she speaks about the qualities that have led her son down his current path. “He’s always been very compassionate, very caring,” she says. “There’s work to be done. People don’t realize how many homeless people there are, how many people are underemployed or unemployed, barely making it. So we’ll keep at it.”
For his part, Donovan has a maturity beyond his years—and trendsetter sensibilities to boot. With a product line that includes soaps shaped like doughnuts, cupcakes, hamburgers, even eggs and bacon, there’s no lack of creativity on his part.
Like his designs, the message behind his soap business is impossible to ignore. Each purchase shines a light on an issue that demands attention. “Homelessness isn’t a cliché, it’s just not a person on drugs in the park,” he says. The passion is clear in his voice as he explains his road to homelessness. His mother’s military background and college degree didn’t protect them. With no safety net and no family or community to rely on, there was no one to call when she lost her job. “Homelessness can be anybody at any time.”
Motivated by this knowledge, Donovan keeps making his soap. Local shelters have enough for now, he says, so he’s looking to help nation-wide. “I’m just doing what I can. If someone needs soap, I’m here to make it.”
Watch Donovan’s full story.