Teen Raises $100K for Food Bank by Making His Own Vanilla Extract: 'No One Should Be Hungry'
Like many during quarantine, 15-year-old William Cabaniss took up baking as a hobby to help pass the time.
Unlike many, however, William harnessed his hobby for social good, and over the past year, has raised $100,000 for a local Tennessee food bank — all by making and selling his very own vanilla extract.
"No one should be hungry. No one should have to worry about where their next meal is going to come from," he tells PEOPLE. "This is my way of helping to eradicate hunger in East Tennessee."
For William, a high school freshman who lives in Knoxville, the beginning of lockdowns last spring meant more time to spend in the kitchen whipping up treats with his 10-year-old sister Katherine.
He says his love for brownies — and, more specifically, vanilla extract — began two years ago, when he hosted a Super Bowl party and cranked out a batch for his guests.
"I wanted to improve the recipe, so I added some vanilla extract," he says. "And during the quarantine, I was still adding small amounts of vanilla extract into my brownies. It just became my little thing."
William's "little thing" soon took on a life of its own, however, after the teen noticed reports on the news of people struggling with food insecurity amid the pandemic.
"I went to go bake brownies for dessert that night, and as I poured vanilla, it hit me that, 'Hey, I could make this myself. I could sell this, and I could help those people in need,'" he says of one fateful night in April.
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The cause was near and dear to his heart — William has long volunteered at a soup kitchen, and since kindergarten, has been on the hunt for ways to help those struggling, whether through volunteering or donating his allowance.
"I grew up in a small town, where there were a lot of kids who were on free or reduced lunch," he says. "I saw that as early as kindergarten. There were kids in my class who didn't come to school with breakfast in their stomachs. Seeing this just really bothered me. I was fortunate enough to go home to food, but I couldn't eat seeing how all these kids were suffering."
Before long, the idea for Vanilla Feeds Tomorrow was hatched, and with a logo and website William designed himself, he launched the nonprofit in May 2020, selling $30 bottles of vanilla extract made with a recipe he perfected himself.
All proceeds go to the Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee, where each bottle sold provides 42 meals for those in need. So far, he's helped provide 300,000 meals total.
"There was no one better. They support so many counties across East Tennessee and within those counties, there's so many distribution areas or food pantries and charities," he says of Second Harvest, where he also spends time volunteering. "Their range is just truly awe-inspiring. I wanted every penny to go as far as it could."
William's hard work has even been recognized by Points of Light, a volunteer service organization founded by former President George H. W. Bush that is launching its second annual Global Volunteer Month on April 1.
The teen received the organization's Daily Point of Light Award in February after he was nominated by his mom, Jillina.
"I see how hard he works every day," she tells PEOPLE. "He'll stay up super late doing homework and then doing vanilla stuff, trying to juggle it all. And he's not proud or boastful to tell people how hard he works, so I did."
So far, William, who also stays busy running cross country and track and with clubs like student government and JSA, has sold $100,000 worth of vanilla to people in 49 states and Washington, D.C. — all of which has gone to Second Harvest Food Bank. The first installment of $45,000 was donated in December, while the second installment of $55,000 will be handed over in April.
"It's amazing how much can come from just a tiny bottle," he says. "Any difference you can make in your community is still a difference. If it's small or big, that could be changing someone's life."
For those looking to take part in Global Volunteer Month, Points of Light's platform to find volunteer opportunities near you can be found here.