As Ashley Yong prepared for her prom as a Chicago high school senior, she faced a grueling conflict. Being tempted by the pricey dresses and jewels through store windows couldn’t compare to watching thousands of homeless people living right outside her own window in the Chicago suburbs.
“Growing up in a city surrounded by homeless people was impactful,” said Yong, currently a senior journalism major at MU. “I didn’t feel right spending $300 on a dress.”
With the help of her father, Yong decided to make care packages, and deliver them to homeless people around the city instead of attending prom. Chapstick, canned food, bandaids and socks wouldn’t solve the monumental plague of homelessness. However, the care packages would begin to fill a gaping disconnect between two worlds.
“When I got back into the car after handing out the boxes, I burst into tears,” Yong said. “I just kept telling my dad how blessed we were to not have to worry about when we would be able to buy a toothbrush.”
Even after her first outing, Yong’s selfless actions were recognized. Yong created a video following the journey of her alternative prom that received far more attention than expected. As she continued to develop her platform for Give a Box, the program’s GoFundMe campaign stretched from the initial $200 goal all the way to an astounding $6,000. Locals weren’t the only impressed donors.
“Ashton Kutcher and Nicki Minaj both posted about me and the non profit,” Yong said. “I even spoke on the Chicago Morning News.”
The opportunity to give a streak of hope to someone less fortunate allowed volunteers to understand someone who was dramatically different from them. This allowed Give a Box to have a tremendous impact on communities around the nation. Yong noted how singular the focus of the younger generation has become.
“I just thought, here I am in a Starbucks complaining about the wifi, and then all of the sudden I am sitting face-to-face with a homeless person,” Yong said.
Yong strived to extract a quality in human nature that is raw and empathetic. Although pressing “submit” for an online donation was impactful, Yong stressed that nothing could serve generation Z like confronting legitimate problems head first.
“The purpose of Give a Box is to change mindsets,” Yong said. “As a grassroots, local nonprofit I can only hope that volunteers will gain empathy and reflect on their privilege during and after the experience.”
Give a Box was not a one-woman effort. University of Missouri student Jenny Lam said that she stumbled across Give a Box when searching for a service opportunity for the Islamic Center of Central Missouri for a service event.
“The children of the organization were asked to write a note to the recipient of the care package,” Lam said. “These children were writing well wishes, asking to be friends, drawing pictures, and spreading kindness with much thought.”
MU senior Humera Ladhi, a past volunteer with Give a Box, was complementary of Yong’s drive to make a change.
“Ashley is amazing,” Ladhi said. “ I love how she is able to show volunteers that principles of service and compassion are something that everyone can connect on.”
Although Columbia, Missouri, is home to far fewer homeless people than the suburbs of Chicago, Yong remains consistent with her goal to develop volunteers by their interactions with homeless individuals rather than large groups. Change begins with the choice to smile or the decision to let go of prior reservations. Above all, Yong encourages University students to get their hands dirty in the face of adversity.