Fundraising for change: Local teen is dedicated to making the world a better place
Sierra RyanWallick, left, has been raising money for Forgotten Cats since she was ten years old.
Sierra RyanWallick is on a mission to improve the world.
“I think it is very important to be part of your community, and to really try to make a positive difference,” she said during an interview at her Landenberg home.
Sierra started putting her words into action when she was just 10 years old. She read about a campaign to save the manatees, and at Christmas, she asked to adopt a manatee through the organization. “I’ve always loved all animals, especially cats,” she said. “I asked my mom what I could do to help.”
Her mother, Jennifer Ryan, suggested Sierra make and sell things to raise money for a charity. So Sierra knitted washcloths and beaded bracelets, and sold them at the New Garden Growers Market. That first summer, she raised $100 and donated it to a wildlife foundation.
“I sent the money with a handwritten letter, asking them to send me brochures I could hand out,” Sierra said. What she received from the foundation was an impersonal postcard, thanking her and directing her to their website for more information.
“I felt they really didn’t understand that I was trying to help, so I thought maybe a local organization would be more appreciative,” she explained. Then Sierra adopted her cat, Rascal, from Forgotten Cats. She was very impressed with the organization and decided to make them the recipient of her fundraising.
Sierra created AutumnLeaf Fundraisers in 2008, and has been continuously raising money for Forgotten Cats. Today, at 19, she has raised more than $44,000 for the cat welfare group. Forgotten Cats focuses on reducing the unwanted cat population through spay/neuter programs. In addition to sterilizing cats, they vaccinate and provide medical treatment. Any cats that are considered adoptable are found homes, and the remaining cats are released back to their feral colonies.
This no-kill organization has locations in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, and manages one of the largest trap, neuter and return programs nationally. They also assist other cat rescue organizations.
“I really love them because they are the only organizations in this area that spay or neuter feral cats,” Sierra said. “Forgotten Cats is unique in what they do.”
Sierra and her family occasionally foster kittens for the group, and she is especially happy when her friends adopt the kittens. “When that happens, I can go play with them,” she said with a laugh.
Sierra sells her handcrafted items at the New Garden and the West Chester Growers Markets. AutumnLeaf Fundraisers also attends other events, such as the Woodside Creamery Fall Festival, Newark Community Day and the New Castle County Ice Cream Festival at Rockwood Park.
Sierra is always looking for volunteers to help create items to sell. Recently, she met with a group of ladies called the Penn Ridge Sewing Group, who are excited to make hand-sewn items such as drawstring backpacks and cat beds to benefit Sierra’s favorite charity. On an ongoing basis, Sierra usually has ten to 25 people helping her craft items. Her oldest and much-appreciated volunteer is 92-year-old Sophie, who knits catnip balls and small blankets. Sierra would like to reach out to other seniors and involve them with AutumnLeaf Fundraisers.
Jennifer explained, “It’s about helping someone feel productive. It’s nice to give that opportunity to the elderly, who sometimes feel like they don’t have anything to offer.”
Sophie’s daughter, Margie, said her mother loves to go to AC Moore and pick out yarn for her next project. It gives Sophie a sense of purpose, and the cats benefit from her efforts.
Sierra has been stockpiling donations of fabric and yarn so people who don’t have the resources to buy supplies can also participate. She would love to share the supplies with people willing to craft. Jennifer added, “It’s a good way to recycle and reuse yarn and other supplies that people are not utilizing.”
Sierra can also provide patterns for items such as the popular double oven mitts. “If you want to follow a pattern, we can give you one, but I also don’t want to limit anyone’s creativity,” Sierra explained.
Her personal motto is, “I want to change the world.” To do that, she has not only volunteered more than 1,000 hours of service so far this year, but she has racked up more than 65,000 hours of service since she was 10 years old. Sierra’s efforts have positively impacted the lives of 40,0000 cats.
Given her extraordinary efforts, it is not surprising that her work has attracted positive attention. She has won numerous awards, including two Jefferson Awards for Public Service (one national and one regional), and the Delaware Governors Youth Volunteer Service award. The Jefferson Awards Foundation recognizes people who are making positive changes in their community and the world.
“When I was a finalist for the Delaware Jefferson Award, the two other finalists were college students who were doing great things,” Sierra said. “I didn’t really think I was going to win. They announced my name and I got up and gave an acceptance speech in front of a very big audience. It was really, really amazing.”
In 2014, Sierra went to Washington, D.C., as a finalist for the national Jefferson Awards Lead360 program. “It was so inspiring to hear all about the amazing things other people are doing,” she said. That year, Sierra’s fundraising efforts won her first place in the animal rights category. Her involvement with the Jefferson Awards Foundation has helped hone her skills. “I attend their leadership conferences and learn so much, such as how to give an elevator speech or how to demonstrate your credibility to a sponsor,” she said.
Last year, Horizon Helps became a sponsor of AutumnLeaf Fundraisers. At the New Castle County Ice Cream Festival, Sierra’s tent was located next to a Horizon Services tent. David Dworski noticed her tent was brimming with items for sale. He watched her interacting with shoppers and talking about her favorite charity. Dworski was particularly impressed that 100 percent of her sales go directly to Forgotten Cats. He told Sierra his company’s non-profit division, Horizon Helps, would like to sponsor her, saying, “You are an amazing teen doing amazing things.”
Sierra has been thrilled with the sponsorship. “They have been incredibly supportive,” she said. Horizon Helps has helped Sierra by paying her entry fees for various festivals, and by covering the costs of her new brochures.
In addition to her fundraising activities, Sierra finds time for other interests. She is a prolific and published writer. She’s had poems and stories published in Cicada Magazine and Scholastic Magazine, both highly regarded, national publications. Sierra also is a keen photographer. With her favorite Canon camera, she shoots photos and creates beautiful cards that she sells at events. Several of the photos have been accepted for publication, along with her poetry. This school year, Sierra will be adding yet another responsibility to her busy life. She has been named editor of Excelsior Magazine, a publication produced by Pennsylvania home-schooled students.
“I’ve been on the staff of Excelsior for four years, and I have wanted to be the editor since I first heard of it,” she said.
Sierra’s writing, photography and crafting also serve another purpose. Her passions provide a therapeutic outlet for a chronic health issue. She was diagnosed with Lyme disease four years ago, and this debilitating condition limits her energy. “She only has about one to four productive hours of energy a day,” Jennifer explained.
Speaking about her Lyme disease, Sierra said, “It really helps to get my feelings out on paper. I write a lot of poems – some are deep and dark.”
Understandably, she gets frustrated because her energy level cannot keep up with her ideas.
“Sierra is AutumnLeaf Fundraising. She doesn’t have a staff,” Jennifer explained. “There is so much she can’t do with the limitations she has right now.”
“I’m still in high school, too, so I have a lot to do,” Sierra said. Both Sierra’s mother and her father, Kevin Wallick, help with the fundraising group. But it is still a big responsibility. Sierra's past Lyme treatments have not been very successful. However, she is seeing a new specialist in Washington, D.C. She is hopeful the new therapy will help.
“Lyme disease affects every part of my life,” she said. “When you are really tired, your mood plummets, and that affects everything.” She’s been forced to move more slowly through her curriculum, putting her a bit behind, but this year she will complete her senior year of high school.
“It’s good that I’m home schooled, so I can focus at my own pace,” she said. “Home schooling also allows me to incorporate my fundraising into my school work.”
When Sierra can no longer focus on her academics, she uses the time to knit. “It’s important for her to have a mission, to be able to make a difference, even when she is struggling in other areas of her life,” Jennifer said. Last year, Sierra raised $1,000 for a Lyme Awareness Walk and participated in a yarn-bombing event in Newark, Del. Through the event, sponsored by a local knitting group called Yarnivores, 86 parking meters along Main Street were decked out in lime green knitted covers to bring attention to Lyme disease. Sierra enjoyed participating in the fun-filled day.
One of Sierra’s goals is to see chapters of AutumnLeaf Fundraisers established in schools and youth groups across the country. She is also serious about reaching out to seniors citizens.
“I have tons of ideas going forward,” she said. “There are so many ways to help out, and anyone can get involved.”
Sierra’s wish list for the immediate future is to find someone with time and energy to help with administrative chores, such as answering emails, coordinating donation pickups, and managing the group’s Facebook page. With her limited energy, the time spent on these tasks could be put to better use. She is also always looking for helping hands, either groups or individuals, who sew or do other crafts. Moving forward, Sierra would like to take a gap year prior to college to dedicate all her time and energy to AutumnLeaf Fundraisers to see what she can accomplish. One of her goals is to start chapters of AutumnLeaf Fundraisers in schools and youth groups across the country to support local charities.
This young changemaker is clear on her vision for the future. Her ultimate goal is to raise a million dollars for charity. “I call it becoming a ‘millionaire of the heart.’ I will always volunteer, give back, and use my ideas to improve and change the world. I want to do this for the rest of my life.”
You can find Sierra RyanWallick and AutumnLeaf Fundraisers at the New Garden Growers Market every Saturday, and at the Woodside Creamery Fall Festival on Oct. 8. To learn more about the organization and their events check out the AutumnLeaf Fundraisers Facebook page.