Formerly Homeless 13-Year-Old Entrepreneur Closes Business in Order to Help People in Shelters: 'It's My Way of Saying Thank You'

"People helped us and now I want to help others," Donovan Smith tells PEOPLE

Photo: Courtesy Casey Smith

A formerly homeless teen entrepreneur has closed his designer bath products business in order to focus entirely on making and donating soaps to people with nowhere to live.

Donovan Smith, 13, plans to make 600 soaps per month in order to give back to the shelters that helped him and his mom during a time when they would have been out on the streets.

“People helped us and now I want to help others,” Donovan tells PEOPLE. “It’s my way of saying thank you.”

Donovan and his mom, Casey Smith, fell onto hard times three years ago when Casey, a Navy veteran with a service-connected disability, couldn’t find work, and lost her housing in Georgia.

The mother and son retreated to increasingly bleak refuge, and wound up living in a garage.

“Things got worse,” Casey says. “We had no electricity. No hot water. I had to sell my car to buy food.”

Casey worked with the Veterans Administration to find shelter, but spaces for a woman and a child were at a premium, and were difficult to find.

Finally, a space came open at the Henderson House shelter for female veterans in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Casey and Donovan boarded a bus and moved west.

The mother-son pair lived at the shelter for six months, until they found an apartment.

There, Casey homeschooled her young son.

Bright and inquisitive, Donovan relishes the schooling.

“I love English, reading, and art,” Donovan says.

He also likes crafts. So Casey taught him to make old-fashioned soap. Donovan dove in with enthusiasm.

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“Early in the morning, I’d hear the microwave going,” Casey laughs. “He had soaps laid out on the tables, and all his molds and ingredients. He was so busy.”

Donovan began producing soaps – both scented and unscented – formed into shapes ranging from realistic donuts, pies, hamburgers and ice cream cones to busts of Darth Vader – as well as traditional blocks.

Word spread and neighbors began buying the soaps. Before long, Donovan turned his hobby into a business, Toil and Trouble Bath, and ran his own booth at a local crafts market.

His business thriving, Donovan could not forget how he and his mother were able to recoup their lives.

“Being homeless makes you different,” Donovan says. “It’s not easy. I wanted to make things better for people in the shelters.”

At first, Donovan donated a portion of his profits to Henderson House, where he and Casey found their bearings. He also gave 310 soaps to the annual Project Stand Down & Hands Up, for Albuquerque veterans.

But the young soap maker still felt that he wasn’t doing enough.

“I kept wanting to do more,” Donovan says. “People need help.”

He served meals in a number of local shelters. Using his own money, he donated blankets, toothbrushes, combs, and diapers to the Supportive Housing Coalition of New Mexico.

In 2015, Donovan supported St. Martins Hospitality Center by serving 800 meals to homeless clients and donating 185 Mylar blankets, 432 toothbrushes, 480 combs and cases of diapers and feminine hygiene products.

Donovan kept asking what the shelters needed. The answer consistently came back: soap.

“I donated 30 to 50 soaps a day,” Donovan says.

The need continued. It became overwhelming.

“It got to be too much for him to run his business and donate the soap they needed,” Casey says. “Based on the need, he would have to make 150 soaps a week.”

Rather than curtail his philanthropic efforts, Donovan shut down the business end of Toil and Trouble so he would have time to make and distribute the soap donations.

He set a goal of donating at least 7,200 soaps this year – a rate of 600 or more per month.

The company that built Henderson House is grateful for Donovan’s efforts.

“JB Henderson is honored to have been a small part of Donovan’s story,” spokeswoman Melissa Gomez tells PEOPLE. “Our employees enjoy following Donovan’s story and seeing the positive impact he continues to make in our community – he is an inspiration to all of us.”

Others are inspired, as well. In April, Richard Berry, the mayor of Albuquerque, gave Donovan a Good Samaritan Award, and invited him to serve on the city’s Youth Advisory Council.

“As the mayor, I frequently tell our city s youth that they are never too young to be leaders,” says Berry, who notes that “Donovan is a shining example of this at just 13 years old. His compassion, leadership, and selfless ambitions are what made him an obvious choice as a City of Albuquerque Good Samaritan.”

Donovan’s mom set up a GoFundMe page to help Donovan cover the costs of his soap donations.

The young humanitarian remains focused on his mission.

“I’m really happy that I’m helping,” Donovan says. “I hope I make a difference in peoples’ lives.”

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