By James Hanlon
Leader Staff Writer
Out of thousands of nominees nationwide, Alex VanHaren, 14, is one of five finalists for the Caring Institute’s Young Adult Caring Award, a national service recognition. The young Oxford philanthropist needs votes from the public to win the award.
When he was only nine years old, VanHaren founded Scarves 4 Cozy Kids, a charity that makes and donates scarves, hats, and gloves for local children in need. One day on the playground he noticed some students didn’t have winter clothing for recess. “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 that average elementary school children think about,” his mother, Nicole Betzler said. “He’s always been very aware of those that are less fortunate and trying to help them.”
With the help of other volunteers, he has made and distributed over 7,500 hats, gloves and scarves in the last five years. His boxes of winter items are located in 22 schools and have been donated to more than 20 organizations.
VanHaren, now a freshman at Oxford High School, recognizes that people are willing to help by repurposing things that they already have in their home for someone in need. In addition to winter items, he organizes two annual donation drives collecting more than 40 pounds of pop tops for Ronald McDonald House and 400 pairs of eyeglasses for the Lions Club.
He partners with a new organization every month to assist other causes such as collecting used cell phones for seniors and victims of domestic violence, used blankets and towels for Heavenly Paws and K9 animal rescues, old wedding dresses for Angel Gowns, school supplies for schools in need, personal hygiene items for the Haven, used coats for the Oakland County Sheriff’s Coat Drive, used clothing for Grace Centers of Hope, can foods and non-perishable foods for Oxford/Orion Fish food pantry, and used building materials for Habitat for Humanity.
“In March, the pandemic left us no other choice but to pause our collections since many of our partners were not accepting physical donations,” VanHaren said. “Instead, I pivoted to 3D printing ear savers for first responders that had to wear masks all day. My family and I printed what felt like non-stop for months, and donated hundreds of mask savers to local medical, fire, police and grocery store workers free of charge.”
He has continued raising monetary donations for local food pantries and collected personal hygiene items, toilet paper and cleaning items for local families that were struggling to make ends meet because of job loss due to the pandemic. This month, he is collecting gently used luggage for foster children and homeless. Visit Facebook.com/Scarves4CozyKids) to find out how to donate or support.
As part of the consideration process for the Caring Award, he has been through several interviews and reviews. Visit Caring.org/Young-Adult-Nomination to vote for him.
Earlier this year, VanHaren was named Michigan’s Top Youth Volunteer by Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. He participated in a virtual conference with winners from all 50 states, received an engraved silver medallion, a $1,000 scholarship, and $2,500 to donate to local COVID-19 response efforts of a nonprofit organization of his choice. He chose to split the $2,500 evenly between Oxford-Orion FISH and Good Samaritans in Lapeer.