Last November, 12-year-old Violet started an organization called Cleveland H.U.G.S. in order to help the community that had assisted her and her family more than a year earlier. H.U.G.S. stands for “Help Us Give Shoes,” and the organization’s mission is simple — to provide shoes and other necessities like clothing and food to people who do not have what they need.
“I realized what it was like to not have shoes and clothes and food,” Violet said. “There’s so much I want to do now.”
Violet’s home was completely destroyed, and, while items like photos were salvageable, family members were left in need of basics like shoes. Many of their neighbors in the Blue Springs Road area also lost their homes.
The Lake Forest Middle School seventh-grader has competed in national American Miss pageants since 2010. During one of her state competitions last year, she met another girl her age who had decided to give back to her community. In 2009, a Nashville girl named Olivia Wright founded an organization called Tennessee H.U.G.S. During her first year, Wright delivered shoes to families who had been affected by floods. Violet said she was inspired by what Wright had done and wanted to do something like that in her hometown of Cleveland.
“I started talking to my dad, and we started talking to Olivia,” Violet said.
The result was that Violet, with the help of her parents, was able to found a local chapter of Tennessee H.U.G.S. called Cleveland H.U.G.S.
Parents Robert and Laverne Lee have made helping the community a family affair. They have so far collected shoes, clothing, food and blankets to give to people in need. For now, the family has been collecting donations by making arrangements with people wanting to donate through the Cleveland H.U.G.S. Facebook page, and with a donation bin at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, which the family attends. For now, they store the donations they receive in their home.
The Lees eventually hope to locate the organization at a physical address which will allow people in need of shoes and other necessities to stop by and get what they need. Robert said he would eventually love to see the organization become a place where the homeless can come in from the cold, have coffee and wash clothes as well. But for now, anyone in need of help is encouraged to contact them directly. Robert said they can arrange a public meeting place for people to pick up what they need or can deliver items to people wherever they are living.
Laverne said the goal is that people in need of shoes and other items can get what they need without behind afraid of lengthy application processes or stigmas attached to some services for the poor. She said she remembers being too proud to seek out help after the 2011 tornadoes hit. The Lees eventually did seek help, and are still grateful for it today, she added.
“It does make you want to reach out,” Laverne said. “It put a burden on our hearts when someone helped us.”
In addition to locating a facility to house Cleveland H.U.G.S., Robert said he and Laverne are also planning to start a gluten-free food pantry and a chapter of a support group called R.O.C.K., or Raising Our Celiac Kids. Their son, Violet’s older brother, suffers from celiac disease, and Robert said they know how difficult it is to manage the disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes people to have toxic reactions to food containing gluten, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. Those reactions can cause permanent damage to a person’s intestines and lead to other health problems.
Robert said that it can be difficult to find gluten-free food in stores, and that managing celiac disease is even more difficult for those who live on low incomes or are out of work. Gluten-free foods are often less plentiful and more expensive, he said.
In July, Violet will have the opportunity to speak about Cleveland H.U.G.S. and celiac disease when she participates in another pageant. The hope is that the platform will bring attention to both causes.
Her dad, Robert, said the goal is that they will have a “family ministry” that will help people with various needs. Laverne added that their goal is not to compete with other area organizations, but to offer another option for those in need of shoes, clothes, food or other staples.
As some affected by the 2011 tornadoes continue to rebuild their homes and mend their fences as the Lees have done, they said they want to be there to help people in need for any reason, whether it be because of tornado damage or situations like unemployment.
“We just want to help out any way we can,” Robert said. “It’s hard to repay kindness, but we’re trying to pay it out.”
The Lees are currently accepting donations of shoes, clothes, nonperishable food — especially gluten-free foods — and basic supplies like blankets, heaters and fans that can help alleviate cold or heat, depending on the season.
For more information about donating to or receiving help from Cleveland H.U.G.S., visit its website, ClevelandHugs.weebly.com, find the organization’s Facebook page, send an email to ClevelandHugs@yahoo.com or call 423-790-9674.