Life with Gracie: Gwinnett teen rolling out the toilet paper to help others

At 15, Kendall Robinson has been a volunteer nearly her entire life.

She has donated groceries and cooked meals for Middle Eastern refugees in Greece; led Bible studies in Ecuador; and closer to home, that was Kendall handing out programs last year at the annual Christmas Tree Lighting in our nation’s capital.

In all those places, she witnessed both goodness and pain.

But nothing has moved her quite like the quick exchange she had with a homeless man last summer while volunteering at a mobile food pantry in Atlanta.

Kendall, a junior at Greater Atlanta Christian School, was handing out toiletries, paper towels and toilet paper, when the man lamented having to ration his toilet paper to make it last an entire month.

It’s the kind of thing that most of us probably take for granted. Going to the bathroom is something we don’t give much thought to. If we need to go, we just go.

Indeed, it might surprise most people that in some places, including some remote areas of the United States, going to the bathroom isn’t that simple.

According to the World Health Organization, a billion people in 2012 had no access to decent sanitation. They defecate in gutters, behind bushes or in bodies of water, with no dignity or privacy. Nine out of ten people who practice open defecation live in rural areas, but the number in urban areas is gradually increasing.

If that stops you cold as it did me, imagine how Kendall must have felt. When thinking of homelessness, its easy to imagine someone cold and hungry but she hadn’t seen this coming.

“The man’s story stuck with me,” she said.

As part of the Youth Summit on Hunger and Poverty, a program of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, it was Kendall's responsibility to come up with and implement a project that would change her community for the better. And so it struck her to hold a toilet paper drive to benefit the homeless.

She first put out a challenge on her mother’s Facebook page, then a few days later she posted fliers at her school asking for donations. That was in April.

“Every day for a month we had a new package of toilet paper outside our door, even on Sundays,” Kendall said.

Shipments came from as far away as California and New Jersey and Japan and the Bahamas.

“It was unbelievable but yet divine at the same time,” Kendall’s mother, Felicia Robinson, added.

By May this year, they had so much toilet paper, Kendall decided to expand her outreach to include the needy beyond metro Atlanta. That included a long list of agencies the food bank had vetted: child-care agencies, male transition homes, women’s shelters; and other parts of the country.

The school drive ended after a week, but once the news media got word of Kendall’s efforts there was no way to stop the flow of toilet paper to the Robinson’s Suwanee home. Or the kudos coming from local and national officials, including one from President Obama.

"This is just a quick note with my warmest wishes," the president wrote in a letter dated May 31. "From my earliest days as a community organizer through my work as president, I have found that Americans can achieve extraordinary things when we work together. Each of us has a role to play in creating a better world for future generations. I trust that you take pride in your contributions, and I hope your service moves others to serve as well."

“I did not believe it,” Kendall said. “We had only started a month ago, and we were already getting support from the highest office of the land. It validated what I was doing. I was ecstatic.”

She felt the same way when she received notes from Gov. Nathan Deal and Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who told Kendall that her leadership set a high standard for her peers.

“Your commitment to service is greatly appreciated and has not gone unnoticed,” Kemp wrote.

That last part spoke volumes.

Donations rolled in from Honda-Mall of Georgia, Marriott Hotels, Charmin and their largest contributor to date, Kimberly-Clark, which has committed to giving 75,000 rolls.

Kendall estimates she has distributed close to 25,000 rolls of toilet paper to the homeless and hundreds of bulk packages to senior citizen homes, church pantries and other nonprofits.

When I spoke to the teen last week, she was awaiting word from the Internal Revenue Service about her application for 5013c status. What was supposed to be a weeklong effort will soon be a nonprofit called Love Rolls, Inc.

“Obviously, this is bigger than us,” she said.

If nothing else, it’s proof there’s no way to contain love. It just keeps on giving.

On Friday, Kendall will be a featured guest at Chick-Fil-A headquarters. The franchise recently selected Love Rolls as its featured community service project during this year’s annual staff summit.