Caleb White was six years old the first time he saw a homeless person sleeping on a sidewalk on a winter’s night in downtown Detroit.
“Mama, why is that man sleeping outside in the cold?” he asked his mother, Melissa Kennedy, after they attended a circus one weekend. “Why doesn’t he sleep in a bed?”
When Melissa told him that some people didn’t have homes to sleep in, Caleb burst into tears.
“We need to build him a house — we need to help him,” he said.
Not wanting to let the moment pass, Melissa asked her son if there were other ways they might be able to help.
“Caleb went home and asked family and friends to bring donations of hand warmers, gloves and socks to help people through the winter,” she tells PEOPLE. “He has such a tender heart — I knew there was something special going on. He’s a humble, good kid.”
That small moment on a chilly night seven years ago has now become a community-wide effort to help Detroit’s homeless through the Caleb White Project , a nonprofit run by Caleb, now 14, and Annette, a single mother and marketing creative director with one other son, Noah, 8.
The charity donates backpacks full of school supplies to children in need, holds Christmas parties for homeless veterans and game nights for kids, donates hundreds of boxes of warm clothing in winter months and has opened small libraries in all 10 of Detroit’s homeless shelters to “give people a place to escape for a while,” says Caleb.
“At home, I have a lot of books, and I noticed that the people we were helping usually didn’t have any,” the Detroit Catholic Central High School ninth-grader tells PEOPLE. “Most people living in a shelter don’t have a place to go outside their tiny room. It feels good to know they now have a place where they can find a good book and forget about their problems for a while.”
Caleb’s library project brought 3,000 Detroit youths together last April to turn one room in each city shelter into a reading room filled with shelves of donated books, bright lighting, cozy chairs, new floors and colorful art for freshly-painted walls.
“The benefits of Caleb White’s library project to the men, women and children we rescue and rehabilitate in metro Detroit speak volumes of his benevolent heart and commendable vision,” Chad Audi, president and CEO of the 107-year-old Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, tells PEOPLE. “We deeply appreciate and hold him up as a young exemplar of compassion in our community.”
And the kids love it, too.
“You need to have seen – during last school break – the excitement on the faces of kids at our Genesis House 2 and Genesis House 3 facilities each time they opened the library books and read to the delight of their mothers and our kid-friendly staff,” he says. “That was such a priceless feeling.”
Adds Michael Cuttler, outreach manager for Youth Service America: “While Caleb has an uncanny ability to mobilize others, the most incredible thing about him is his awareness and humble approach to complex societal problems like hunger, education and homelessness at such a young age.
“He has demonstrated wisdom beyond his years,” Cuttler, whose group gave Caleb’s nonprofit a $1,000 grant to help furnish the libraries, tells PEOPLE. “For a city that has faced so many challenges, Caleb is truly a white knight, showing how promising the future can be if a few more people just think and act the way he does.”
Caleb, who regularly recruits students from area schools to help with his projects, says that the joy of witnessing “small moments” is what keeps him going.
“Homelessness is something that could happen to anyone – most people didn’t choose to live this way,” he says. “They had something happen in their lives that was catastrophic. You don’t have to do something big to make a difference. Even giving somebody a pair of gloves can brighten up their day.”
Caleb’s favorite project is something he calls “game night,” when his mom takes him and a group of friends to a family shelter on a Saturday evening to play board games and have snacks with young residents.
“They’re just like us — they like to hang out and have fun and laugh,” he tells PEOPLE. “I’ve made some great friends there.”
“Caleb realized early on that there was a disconnect if you don’t come down here and actually spend time with the people you’re trying to help,” says Melissa. “He’s helped open my eyes, too, so I like to say that there’s a lesson in my son’s generous spirit for all of us: If he could do this at age 6, then anybody can.”
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