READING — Charlie Benjamin was home with his family in Reading one day during the height of the pandemic when he went to his garage for the lawn mower and tripped over a bag of clothes.
The Phillips Andover student asked his parents about the bag and was told they planned to donate it but hadn’t gotten around to it. It suddenly occurred to Benjamin, who had often volunteered for community organizations in the past, that there might be bags of clothes sitting in garages all over.
As he thought of ways to help encourage people to actually go ahead and donate their extra clothes, he had an epiphany. Maybe if he leveraged social media and his high school connections, he could not only create a new avenue to help people in need, but make doing so cool in the process.
“I made a bet where if I started a clothing/book drive completely online I could attempt to make it hype or trendy, and for it to catch on and become part of the high school culture,” Benjamin said. “And it worked out.”
That idea was the inspiration for Wings Initiative, a social media-driven clothing drive that aims to strengthen communal bonds, spread awareness about sustainability practices and support the less fortunate.
Since its creation Wings Initiative has gathered more than 8,000 articles of clothing, expanded to eight schools — including Reading Memorial High School and places as far flung as Idaho and Vietnam — and involved more than 250 community members.
The way it works is students or community members will make donations, and then Wings Initiative will post photos of the donor to their Instagram page. Others will then see those posts on social media and make donations themselves, which Wings Initiative will then distribute to local charities like Cradles to Crayons or Ruth’s House.
“I originally asked people if they had donations and they’re like ‘yeah my family actually has a bunch of used clothes that they’ve been stockpiling for a while,’” said Benjamin, who is now a rising senior at Phillips. “So they brought them to school and I posted on Instagram on our Wings Initiative account a picture of them with their donation, and basically followed a lot of people at the school.
“So then people started seeing that and they’re like oh that could be me up there, this is a new thing to do, a new movement,” he continued. “So they contacted us through the Instagram and asked to donate, and the cycle kind of just feeds itself.”
The initiative quickly spread and with the help of some family, friend and school connections Benjamin was able to help start chapters at schools all over the world. But the most successful outside of the original chapter has been the one at RMHS, which has collected more than 3,000 articles of clothing and is led by Benjamin’s childhood friends Thomas Gallegos, Nick Mazarella, Leo Gosdanian and Sachin Patell
“I was hanging out with them one night and I presented them with what I was doing at Phillips and they were really eager to hop on,” Benjamin said.
Going forward Benjamin said he hopes to incorporate Wings Initiative as a nonprofit and expand to more schools, and generally speaking he believes the organization still has lots of room for growth and that it will continue to adapt and evolve over time.
But no matter what the future holds, he’s proud of what the organization has already accomplished and the difference it’s making in the lives of everyone it’s touched.
“One thing I’m really happy we’re doing is ingraining sustainability practices into high school culture and making it more of a norm. That’s something the numbers don’t show, but that’s what I think is one of the ways we’re most impactful,” Benjamin said. “Wings also provides, for me at least, a way to give student leaders, especially younger kids in high school, give them responsibility and a way to explore their interests. For me, running Wings, I learned so much about myself and business and caring and I want to give that opportunity to younger kids.”
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