Charity earns Shelby teen national recognition

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Jessica Collins has earned a bevy of local attention for her A Place to Sleep organization, and as it has continued to grow, so too is her recognition. She will be featured on the cover of USA Today newspaper’s USA WEEKEND magazine as one of 14 Make a Difference Day winners.

A New York City photo shoot with Today Show hosts Savannah Guthrie and Matt Lauer and a national magazine cover would be enough to make any young girl giggle with excitement.


But when Jessica Collins, 14, was named one of 14 national Make a Difference Day winners for her children’s ministry A Place to Sleep, those were just perks.

She was ecstatic because the $10,000 grant that comes along with the award would enable her to furnish hundreds of kids with a bed, said her grandmother, Lynn Whitaker, who is also the logistics coordinator for the organization.

“She was just thrilled,” Whitaker said.

Collins, a sophomore at Collins High School, started the A Place to Sleep in fifth grade after she learned that some kids like her didn’t have beds to sleep in. After deciding to do something about it, she started working with local individuals and businesses to get mattresses and beds for children in need. The foundation has continued to grow, and has since been embraced by the First Presbyterian Church in Shelbyville.

Collins said that at first, neither she nor Whitaker realized that she would be spotlighted in a special way.

“We didn’t know I was going to be on the cover of USA WEEKEND, then they E-mailed us and said, ‘How would you like to be on the cover?’” Collins said. “And I said, ‘cool.’”

Collins will be featured on the cover of the magazine’s April 6 edition, Lauer and Guthrie.

“I’m holding a pillow and we’re all just smiling,” she said.

Collins giggled when asked if her schoolmates knew about her upcoming celebrity status.

“They say, ‘you’re going to be on the cover, are you a model?’ and I’m like, ‘no way, I’m not a model!’”

And although it doesn’t make her giggle, her face lights up when she talks about getting to buy beds for the 12 children on her ministry’s waiting list with the money she’s won.

“I think everybody deserves a good night sleep,” she said. “If I get a good night’s sleep, I do better on my schoolwork, so I think everybody should have that opportunity.”

And Collins isn’t resting with her newfound celebrity, either.

On Saturday, she was at Tracy’s Home Furnishings in Shelbyville where she was picking up mattress for two children who lost their home in a fire recently. While lugging mattresses she said she enjoys making the deliveries personally, something that volunteers from the church usually do.

“I don’t go to all of them, just because sometimes I’m in school,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t go, just so they [children receiving beds] don’t get embarrassed.”

But seeing those smiles and happy faces, and knowing that those children will now get a good’s night sleep is clearly something that brightens her day.


Getting started

In 2009 after seeing the movie The Blind Side, where a child is adopted by a wealthy family and is surprised to find out that he gets his own bed, something he’s never had before, Collins was deeply affected, Whitaker said.

“We had been doing an Angel Tree child at Christmas, and she said, ‘this year, let’s find a kid that needs a bed instead.’ So we started at Painted Stone Elementary, where she was a fifth grader, working with the family resource center. When we got that family finished, she said, ‘let’s do another one.’”

Since then the ministry has supplied 370 children with beds, and has branched out past Painted Stone to include the entire school system.

“The church has gotten behind her and made it an official ministry, too,” she said. “This is more than just about Jessica. This is about everybody in the community that has come together to make this happen, especially the people at Tracy’s. We could not ask for a better partner. The people there, and Mike [Tracy] especially, are just wonderful.”

“Mike is just golden, he really believes in this ministry,” said Thomas Hood, an employee at Tracy’s.

Mike Tracy said he has been helping by selling bedding to the ministry at close to costs.

“We just decided that we wanted to help out as much as we could,” he said.

Collins, the daughter of Jason and Maree Collins of Shelbyville, is a typical teenager, interested in soccer and music, but one who has such a loving heart, Whitaker said.

“She loves to volunteer, she has volunteered at Touched Twice and Red Orchard [park],” she said.


The awards ceremony

And the excitement is still not over as far as the award is concerned, Whitaker said.

“They are going to fly us to Washington D.C. April ninth and tenth for the award luncheon,” she said.

That event will take place at the National Museum of Women in the Arts on April 10 and will spotlight the 14 National Make a Difference Day winners for their volunteering efforts.

Whitaker said she is even more excited than her granddaughter about meeting singer Jon Bon Jovi, who will be recognized at the luncheon for his philanthropic efforts in feeding and sheltering the homeless through his Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation established in 2006.

“They [Lauer and Guthrie] said, ‘now, Jessica, you’re going to get to meet Jon Bon Jovi!’ and she said, ‘who’s Jon Bon Jovi?’”

Whitaker chuckled, adding, “You gotta remember, she’s fourteen.”