ROCHESTER, Mich. (AP) - Since last year, Danielle Ziaja has collected more than 54,000 personal care items for homeless people in suburban Detroit, and the Rochester teen is just getting started.
Ziaja, 17, a senior at Detroit Country Day School, hopes to make an even bigger impact this season with her Clean Start service project, which distributes hygiene supplies to the needy, including toothpaste, toothbrushes, toilet paper, soap, shampoo and hair conditioner.
"I will be available to take and donate everything I can for Christmastime," she said.
In this Dec. 1 photo, Danielle Ziaja, 17, of Rochester Hills, puts boxes of items she collected onto carts before moving them into the Lighthouse of Oakland County pantry, in Pontiac, Mich. Since beginning her Clean State Service project last year, Ziaja has collected more than 53,000 personal care items, mostly from dentists and physicians in Macomb and Oakland counties, to donate to the homeless in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. (AP photo)
"It's gratifying because I work very hard for the goal of giving back to my community. It's nice to see people's smiling faces."
Ziaja said she got the idea for the project from the free product samples her father, Bob, receives as an orthodontist.
"I thought, 'Why don't we give this to people who actually need it?'" she said.
She reached out to other orthodontists and dentists and found many willing to help her. Ziaja recently donated about 23,000 items to three organizations.
One recent recipient was Lighthouse of Oakland County, which serves 10,000 families in Pontiac and Clarkston.
John Ziraldo, the organization's president, said it can be tough for struggling families to fit hygiene products into their budgets. He praised the teenager's campaign.
"It shows sensitivity to the needs of the family and a creative solution to the problem," he said. "She's a pretty extraordinary young woman."
Ziaja recently donated about 1,000 tubes of travel-size toothpaste and 500 toothbrushes to the Clinton Township outreach ministry Cross Point Cares. The organization gives lunches and hygiene bags to the homeless and needy in Detroit.
"I think it's incredible that a kid her age can accomplish so much and help so many people," said Milly Houchins, coordinator for Cross Point Cares. "I ask people for hygiene items all the time. Here she's able to do it. She's helped so many organizations."
The homeless and needy care about their hygiene and appreciate the bags, Houchins said.
"People look at them more politely, treat them better when they have better hygiene," Houchins said. "They do everything they can to stay clean."
Ziaja has branched out to collect school supplies and books. Although she plans to go away to college next year, she intends to continue community service.
"I have a lot more ideas for different projects I can do," she said.
To donate, visit the Clean Start service project on Facebook.
Editor's note: Candice Williams writes for The Detroit News.