Meet Michigan’s top youth volunteer

Alex VanHaren, founder of the charity Scarves 4 Cozy Kids, has been named Michigan’s Top Middle Level Youth Volunteer of 2020 by the Prudential Spirit of the Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism.

Alex VanHaren holding his award letter. Photo provided

Alex will receive an engraved silver medallion and a $1,000 scholarship. He gets to go to Washington D.C. May 2-5, along with Michigan’s High School level honoree and winners from all the other states, to be recognized for his accomplishments and to be considered for one of ten national awards.
Alex’s parents will accompany him on the trip to D.C., where they have “a pretty packed agenda.” There will be congressional visits, workshops to share ideas about each other’s projects and successes, a service project reading to elementary kids, and a gala night at the Smithsonian.
“We’re pretty excited to be part of it,” said Alex’s mother, Nicole Betzler. “They’re seeing all the government pieces in action, which is really cool, a lot of these children are going to be the next leaders.”
Over the past five years, Alex has donated more than 7,500 hats, gloves, and scarves to 22 schools and more than 20 charitable organizations through his Scarves 4 Cozy Kids charity. Here’s how it works:
They deliver a box of winter accessories to each school they work with. The schools keep the boxes in the office where kids can pick out what they need, free of charge. When the box is empty they refill it as soon as possible.
He has also organized annual donation drives collecting more than 40 pounds of pop tops for Ronald McDonald House, 400 pair of eyeglasses for the Lions Club, materials for Habitat for Humanity, blankets, and towels for an animal rescue organization, used books for a children’s charity, school supplies for students in need, and personal hygiene items for an agency serving victims of domestic violence.
Alex started his charity five years ago, when he was a third grader at Oxford Elementary. One day on the playground he saw a group of students wearing lightweight clothing, trying to stay warm. “At that very moment, I realized how fortunate I was and I wanted to help them,” he said. As soon as he got home, he announced to his mother, “We need to learn how to knit right now!” That same day, they studied a YouTube video on how to loom, and went out to buy knitting supplies.
“That’s not something average elementary school children think about,” Nicole said in an interview at their home in Oxford. “They’re usually very self-centered, they don’t really understand the bigger picture of the world.”
“He’s my 65-year-old man in a 14-year-old’s body,” she jokes. “He’s always been very aware of those that are less fortunate and trying to help them. I’m pretty sure if he saw someone without clothes on he’d take his clothes off and give them to them.”
Alex technically won when he was 13, the day before his 14th birthday.
Last year he was a distinguished finalist for the same award, which meant he received a bronze medal, letters from local government leaders and even one from Donald Trump. He was surprised to win after already being recognized. “To be honest, I definitely did not expect it,” he said.
“That’s a big deal when you are chosen out of all the middle school kids in the entire state,” Nicole said, “so huge honor. It’s nice to see him getting some recognition for his hard work.”
Not many teenage boys know how to knit. At first it was just him and his mom. “It definitely took up a lot of my time,” Alex recalls. “Depending on how fast you go, it could take a day or two or a couple hours” to make a scarf.
Now they have a lot of supporters. There’s a group at Independence Village senior apartments that “pump them out” so he doesn’t knit much anymore. Rather, he spends most of his time organizing and administrating the charity. “It’s very time consuming.”
Still, he makes time for other hobbies. He plays video games, and as a band student plays keyboard and percussion. In high school he plans to join concert and marching band.
It takes up his mother’s time, too. Thankfully, she is completely supportive.
“It’s a whole family endeavor. Even friends,” she said. He is too young to drive, so he has recruited friends to help make deliveries. “Alex wants to do a lot of stuff, which is awesome. I love it. He has the biggest heart I’ve ever seen.”
They can clearly see the difference they’ve made in Oxford where Nicole thinks the need is dwindling because most children who need warm winter things have already collected from them. Now they partner with other schools across Southeast Michigan.
Besides schools, they distribute boxes to organizations like Love INC and FISH Food Pantry to pass on to their clients. They also partner with social workers and police departments. Officers from Oxford PD, Oakland County Sheriff’s and Sterling Heights carry grocery bags of gloves and scarves in case they run into anybody out in the field that needs it.
They heard from one social worker about a mother, a daughter and her children who were all living in their car. “They had literally nothing,” Nicole recounted. “The heat in the car went out. The fact that they had just gotten these scarves kept them warm for the night. That’s huge. Just that little bit of ‘someone gave me some love and it made a huge impact in my life.’”
Alex tries to be intentional about which organizations he can work with to make the most impact. In addition to his main charity collecting hats, gloves and scarves year-round, each month he supports a local charity. This month he is collecting towels, blankets and dog beds to benefit Heavenly Paws and K9 Stray Rescue League animal shelters. In March, they will collect hygiene items for HAVEN (victims of domestic violence), Ennis Center for Children (foster children), and soldiers. “Those hotel samples are perfect here!” they suggest.
In general, they have shied away from fund raising. “Anytime you do financial donations, that’s tough,” Nicole explained. “People are in different financial situations, they have their own charities that they’re really into.”
Most of Alex’s collections are of things found around the house — it doesn’t cost anything and helps folks get rid of unwanted items. It’s all about “finding stuff around the house to repurpose, rehome and make someone’s life a little bit better.”
People with family members who passed with large amounts of yarn have donated their wares. “Raw materials are awesome. We can always use them. And that’s probably easier.” If folks want to help out, they are always looking for people to volunteer their time, whether it’s knitting, delivering the monthly donations, or just spreading the word and sharing the Facebook page,
If people want to make financial donations, that’s okay too. Scarves 4 Cozy Kids is not technically a 501(c)(3), but they maintain an ongoing GoFundMe which goes toward supplies or gloves, which are hard to make.

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