Rickee Stewart is getting married in September, but in lieu of registering for dishes, towels and the traditional gifts couples receive for the special occasion, she is asking for backpacks and winter coats for students in her school district.
In the three years since becoming a teacher, Stewart has already deeply affected the lives of her students at Copper Hills High School in West Jordan, Utah. That’s because, along with an education, she has provided goods to underprivileged teenagers ever since she discovered more than 100 students on her campus were homeless.
“I was absolutely shocked,” Stewart, 44, tells PEOPLE. “I had no idea we had so many kids that were seriously struggling, it astounded me.”
Stewart has since used DonorsChoose.org to request items such as food, tents and shoes for students. Goods are placed in a pantry at the school where students can pick them up, hassle-free, and no questions asked—which is important, Stewart says, because students are often apprehensive to ask for help. In one instance, Stewart says an 11th-grade student lived behind a convenience store for a year after his parents abandoned him and his siblings. School officials didn’t find out about his situation for months.
“It scares me that we had a kid chose to live behind a store instead of telling a teacher he needed help,” she says. “That really scares me.”
But, as Stewart found out, the problem of homelessness extended far past the boundaries of Copper Hills High. She discovered that more than 2,100 students were considered homeless in the district for “every possible reason,” Stewart says. She heard stories about lost jobs, single mothers and fathers struggling to provide for their families, and parents kicking their children to the street.
Since her campaign began, donors have given hundreds of items to Stewart’s causes—even if they live thousands of miles from Stewart and the students.
“It is really amazing to see people giving these items just to be good people,” Stewart says, adding that she has received donations from people as far as Canada. “It just breaks me, I’m in a puddle every day when I read the messages they leave on our page.”
All of this momentum has inspired Stewart to use her upcoming September 9 wedding as an opportunity to once again shine a light on students. Stewart recently started a “Wedding Registry” donation page with the goal of collecting hundreds of coats to keep students all around her district warm for the approaching winter.
Though she doesn’t always know the backgrounds and experiences of each student who comes to the pantry for assistance, Stewart knows her efforts have made a difference.
Just this week, a new student quietly approached Stewart after class to deliver a message. “I wanted to tell you that this issue is something very important to me, personally,” the student told Stewart. “I don’t want to tell you why, but I wanted to thank you and say that there is a big need for this. What you’re doing is really important.”
The moment brought tears to Stewart’s eyes.
“I gave her a hug,” Stewart says, “and I told her if there’s anything she needed from me, I would be there to help her.”