Orangevale boy, 11, inspires and encourages others as he gathers thousands of pairs of socks for the homeless

11/28/2013 12:00 AM

11/28/2013 12:15 AM

If anyone deserves to have their hearts warmed this Thanksgiving, it’s the Sacramento region’s less fortunate, the area’s thousands of homeless residents who endure rugged outdoor existences or are shuffled from church to church for overnights as fleeting as the shuttles that deliver them.

On Wednesday, in time to make this holiday an occasion for real thanks-giving, 11-year-old Matthew Johnson performed just the needed service: He spread congeniality among the three dozen or so guests at the Gathering Inn in old Roseville as he handed out free warm, clean pairs of donated socks to all, and left dozens more for those who hadn’t yet moseyed on over.

Judging by the smiling, weathered faces and polite applause from the homeless guests, swaddled in layers of clothing and sunken into cozy, secondhand sofas in the Inn’s central living area, the boy’s mission made quite the impression. Matthew was aided in his quest by friend Laney Walker, 11, a first-timer at the endeavor.

“It’s good to see kids doing the right thing,” said James Stewart, sporting a shaved head, silver hoop earrings and a black leather jacket. “It warms our hearts. The kids are loving it. I can tell by the look on their faces.” Stewart said he ended up on the streets after a layoff and a divorce upset his fortunes.

Rick Boone agreed. “I think it’s good. It teaches them how to give, and how to see homeless people not as drug addicts or criminals, but as people simply in a bad spot.”

This is Matthew’s fourth year on the sock-gifting circuit. Ever since he was 4, he has shown an affinity for the poor. That’s when his mother first noticed him crying at the sight of a nonprofit organization’s TV commercial showing malnourished and ailing children in Africa.

Matthew recalled being struck with empathy: “I saw people’s need,” he said. “It just stuck with me.”

When he was 8, he went with his mother to feed the homeless and fell into a deep conversation with a man living a far less privileged life. They’d found something in common. They talked about their mutual interest in outer space, and the man shared the titles of several movies on space. Matthew seemed genuinely moved, and when his mother asked him if he wanted to do something to help the homeless, he answered, “Yes, please.”

His first proposal was to gather overcoats for the homeless. Immediately, Luz Johnson said, she began to visualize the sheer volume of outerwear she would end up hauling in her minivan for Matthew’s mission. They settled on socks instead. After all, donations of warm socks are what’s recommended by Sister Libby Fernandez, who runs Sacramento’s venerable destination for the homeless, Loaves & Fishes.

This year, Matthew, a sixth-grader at Andrew Carnegie Middle School in Orangevale, reached for an ambitious goal: collecting 10,000 pairs of socks to give away. He fell short, ending up with about 6,000 pairs. But there were also gloves, clothing and hats that schoolmates and people from Matthew’s church gathered up at his behest.

“This is amazing. This is just great,” said Liz Nicholson, program director of the Gathering Inn, as she surveyed the goods. “It’s something we don’t see every day – little ones getting out and getting involved. They’re doing a great job.”

Laney Walker, from Breeve Elementary School in Rocklin, joined forces with him this year for her inugural round at the sock drive. She used to help her mother, Andrea Walker, gather children’s shoes to send to U.S. troops to distribute in Afghanistan.

The bulk of the collecting and distributing goes on each year in October, or “Socktober,” as Matthew and his mom like to call it. As the Orangevale resident unloaded large, cumbersome, cardboard boxes of socks and other donations from her mini-van Wednesday, Luz Johnson admitted a lot of the heavy lifting is done by her – literally.

“I do a lot of the work since he’s in school and he has to do his homework,” she said. “He’s the face. He’s the inspiration. He’s never been a follower but a leader, and other kids look up to him.”

Indeed, Matthew’s sock drives caught the eye of Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, who has presented the boy with a proclamation honoring his work.

“I think it was very deserving,” Serna said. “To see someone of his age helping so many people, and to hear his message – it was a no-brainer to give him recognition. That’s especially true in this day and age when young people are glued to their iPhones.”

Asked how he provides inspiration to others, Matthew said, “It’s by my community service and because I’m so young. I’m just like a regular kid in the world making a difference.”

Gathering Inn executive director Suzi deFosset said she very much appreciated the kids’ efforts and kindness. She was busily getting the Inn ready for today’s feast, but also worrying about a budget deficit that will shut the Inn down on weekends starting in mid-December.

The Inn, which provides computers, assistance with disability paperwork, housing placement, mental health, substance abuse and health care guidance, survives on donations, some U.S. Housing and Urban Development department funds and the generosity of donors. The organization gets no funding from local governments. Currently it has an online auction running until Dec. 8 at www.thegatheringinn.com.

What’s really special about Matthew’s project is that it is child-centric, deFosset said. “The parents are able to say, ‘How do you want to provide help? Then the kids are able to say, ‘This is how we’ll do it.’”

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