At the tender age of 12, Zach Bonner is a seasoned activist. The Florida sixth-grader has raised thousands of dollars for homeless children, organized drives that sent backpacks filled with school supplies to war-torn Afghanistan, and arranged camps that exposed his peers to the problems of poverty.
On Friday, he encouraged local fifth-graders to find ways to help others.
“I’m no different than you are,” Bonner told 1,400 fifth-graders from Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls. “You don’t have to have a lot of experience. I was only 6 when I did my first project.”
Bonner was the keynote speaker at the 25th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at North Idaho College, designed to raise elementary school students’ awareness of human rights. More than 30,000 fifth-graders have attended the program since it started in 1986 – the first year that King’s birthday was observed as a national holiday.
“We believe the answer to promoting equality for all is in the field of education,” said Tony Stewart of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, which is one of the event’s sponsors. “Education is the only way to win the battle, and the students are such a wonderful age.”
Economic equality was a focus of this year’s event. Bonner, who lives in Tampa, said he became an advocate for the homeless after learning that 1.3 million U.S. children are without permanent shelter. Over three summers, he walked 1,400 miles from his home to Washington, D.C., to focus attention on homelessness in America. His “Little Red Wagon Foundation” raises money for books and supplies for schools with high numbers of low-income students.
Bonner received a volunteer service award from former President George W. Bush. Beginning in April, he plans to walk 2,200 miles across the United States to raise additional money for homeless and street children.
“Though you set out to help other people, it will be you that becomes a much better person,” Bonner told the crowd of fifth-graders.
The message resonated with local children.
“Zach Bonner inspires me because he helps the homeless people,” said Cheyenne Arellano, a Borah Elementary student. “I wouldn’t like homeless people to starve.”