“Please don’t think that just because you can’t save the entire world that you shouldn’t bother trying to help the ones you can help. Every ounce of help that you put out into the world matters.” – Emily Kubin
Some people come into your life and leave a tremendous impact, no matter how long they visit. Emily Kubin, founder of Emily’s Hats For Hope Initiative, is one of those people. She was introduced to me thanks to Shannon of Homeless Solutions Inc and I am truly a better person after getting to know her.
While most of us spend our high school days pining over the cute boy you’re too afraid to talk to, worrying about getting into college, or who you want to ask you to prom, Emily had a much more ambitious agenda. At the age of 17, she decided to start a non-profit that provides hats, scarves, sweaters, afghans, and other winter necessities for homeless individuals and the working poor. In just over three years, Emily’s Hats For Hope Initiative has grown from a solo teenage girl knitting hats while watching Netflix, to an organization spread across the United States and countries around the globe. All before she was a junior in college.
Today Emily shares her story of how her empathy for people living on the streets grew into something so much bigger than even she could imagine.
Me: What inspired you to first pick up knitting?
Emily: My grandmother first showed me how to knit. I was always fascinated by her abilities and talent for the craft and I wanted to be able to learn to do the same. I first began when I was in middle school and made basic scarves, but soon advanced to more complex projects such as sweaters, and hats. As soon as I learned to make hats, I fell in love with the project. Hats were simple and very useful during the winter months. I then decided to join my love for volunteering and my love for knitting hats together, by beginning to make hats and giving them to my local soup kitchen to help the homeless in my hometown.
Me: What is it about the homeless community that spoke to you and moved you to make it the focus of your give back efforts?
Emily: My hometown of Morristown, New Jersey has a significant homeless population. I grew up seeing individuals waiting in line at the soup kitchen, or sleeping on the sidewalk. Even as a child, this deeply upset me. I could not believe that America, the land of endless possibilities, could still allow individuals to slip through the cracks. I could not wrap my mind around the fact that there were people who had to live on the street, just a few miles from my home.
The shock I felt when I first understood what homelessness was when I was a child resonated with me for several years. I wanted to make a difference to this population, and even if I could not end homelessness on my own, I could at least find solutions to smaller problems that the homeless individuals were facing. As a junior in high school, I made this goal a reality. I found a way to help combat an issue that the homeless people face in the winter, poor protection against the cold.
Me: When you first began to donate your hand made creations to shelters, did you image it would extend so far beyond your immediate circle of friends and family?
Emily: Initially no, I had never imagined that these small donations would lead to a large international organization. However, once I began asking family and friends to donate yarn, hats, and scarves, I realized that this concept could become much bigger than initially expected. I received an outpouring of support not only from family and friends, but from others who had heard about what I was doing by word of mouth. A grassroots effort soon was underway and, as my idea spread through social media, I received more support, volunteers, and hats! Now, three and a half years later we have collected over 18,000 winter hats, not to mention thousands of gloves, scarves, afghans, socks, and coats.
Me: How long after you started donating did you start receiving inquiries from other states across the US? When did you receive your first international query?
Emily: We began receiving donations from other states within a month of creating our Facebook page, international donations came not long after that.
We not only received donations from across the country, and globe, but we also began being asked by individuals if they could start their own “spin-off” in their community. While our spin-offs are considered independent and are not directly affiliated with us, they do receive both mentoring and support from us. Spin-offs frequently do similar work to what we do, but they create their own mission statement. Many collect and distribute winter hats to the homeless and working poor, but some focus on veterans, babies, or on people with cancer. To date we have over 40 spin-offs, many of which are scattered across the U.S. but we also have some in Canada, Australia, and Denmark! I love our spin-offs because they allow us to help more people in more places than we ever could on our own.
Me: In addition to all your efforts in knitting and coordinating donations for shelters across the US, you manage to find the extra time to volunteer for the shelters you donate to as well. What motivated you to volunteer on top of everything else? Has volunteering always been a big part of your life? Or something that came about later in life?
Emily: I have always enjoyed volunteering, I believe it is a great way to not only help your community, but teach you about yourself. In high school I was actively involved in Key Club, which is a volunteering club, and in college I began volunteering at both school events and nonprofits. Thus far, I have actually completed three internships at nonprofits, all of which had a focus on helping the homeless and working poor. These internships reinforced my passion for helping disadvantaged groups. The experiences also allowed me to interact with the homeless and working poor on a deeper level than I had been given the opportunity to with Emily’s Hats for Hope Initiative. For example, when I drop off hat donations to nonprofits I seldom get the opportunity to help distribute the hats and other winter items directly to the individuals receiving them.
Me: With the ability to look back over the past few years and all the people you’ve been able to help and the reach you’ve had, is there a word or phrase that captures your thoughts and feelings on all you have been able to accomplish?
Emily: One small dream can create change in the world…especially when others believe in your dream and help you make it happen.
Me: Given all the life lessons founding Emily’s Hats For Hope Initiative has given you, have these experiences influences your choices for college majors and/or your life beyond college?
Emily: Emily’s Hats for Hope Initiative has definitely impacted my life choices. It has taught me to challenge myself and to feel like I can do anything that I set my mind to. I believe it has helped me to accept the challenge of completing three internships, with a fourth one coming this fall. It has also given me the confidence to work this summer with a social psychologist from my university, doing research.
I believe my organization has impacted my academic interests. I am a psychology major with a double minor in anthropology and neuroscience and I was recently inducted into Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology. I am interested in psychology because I want to help improve people’s lives. I have noticed that I am much more ambitious since creating Emily’s Hats for Hope Initiative, and now I hope to attain my PhD in clinical psychology.
Me: How do you find the time to knit and volunteer, given you are a full time college student with an internship, job, and personal life?
Emily: I am quite a busy person, but thankfully I have found that knitting these hats relaxes me. In fact, my idea of relaxation is making a hat while binge watching Netflix. Hat making has become a time in the day when I can unwind. However, being so busy does lead me to need to prioritize and manage my time carefully.
Me: With everything you have going on in your life as a young college student, no one would blame you, should you decide to walk away and try something new – you’ve already made a big difference in the lives of so many. What keeps you motivated to keep pushing yourself forward in all aspects, both with your nonprofit and with school?
Emily: I have grown into a person who really enjoys challenging myself. I also believe there is room for improvement both academically and with this nonprofit. I think challenging myself to continue to improve keeps me motivated academically; however, it is a little different with Emily’s Hats for Hope Initiative. While I will always find ways to make the organization run better, help more people, etc., it is something that I am incredibly passionate about and I love to do it. In fact, I can honestly say that I plan to continue Emily’s Hats for Hope the rest of my life. I cannot imagine my organization no longer being a part of my life.
Me: Traditionally, when people decide to dedicate their time and energy to serving others, the act is completely selfless – they simply want to share their abundance with someone who could use a boost. But, as you well know, there is always a surprising altruistic reward. What is the one thing that has surprised you most about this journey?
Emily: I was surprised people would be so willing to volunteer and help me with my mission. I have been given the opportunity to work with hundreds of volunteers. It is extremely rewarding seeing how my idea of making hats for the homeless has caused so many people to want to support Emily’s Hats for Hope Initiative. Without my volunteers from all over the world, we would not be where we are today.
Me: Your organization is over four years old. Do you have a specific memory where you realized you’ve created something so much bigger than yourself?
Emily: I realized I had made a huge impact this past winter when I went on a service trip with my university. We went to Washington D.C. to volunteer at organizations that helped the homeless and working poor. One of the nights we were serving dinner to homeless individuals, and I started giving out winter items that I brought with me. I spoke with one woman who showed me her hands. They were a deep blue… almost purple color. I asked her what had happened, and she said she was beginning to get frostbite. I then went and got her a pair of new gloves that I had brought with me, and she was so thankful. As she left I became very emotional. This woman, along with countless others like her, are the reason why I do all this, why I sometimes get stressed out, or feel like I do not have enough hours in the day. That was the moment when I truly realized the implications of my work. I realized what Emily’s Hats for Hope Initiative and all of its wonderful volunteers are really here for.
Me: What is the one piece of advice you would share with others who want to follow in your footsteps of using their talents and unique life experiences to give back?
Emily: My best advice is to follow your dreams. Believe in yourself enough to know that you can do whatever you are passionate about. While it may seem overwhelming, or perhaps even daunting at first, you will be able to find a way to accomplish your aspirations. The key to success is to believe in yourself, and then make others believe in you too. I created this organization when I was 17. So often teens are told their ideas are not worth pursuing. I’m here to tell you that that’t not true. If you are a kid or a teen and you have an idea that you believe in then I hope that you pursue it. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too young. I was fortunate to have a family that supported my idea and helped me along the way. Please don’t think that just because you can’t save the entire world that you shouldn’t bother trying to help the ones you can help. Every ounce of help that you put out into the world matters.