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Ben Skinner

A Georgetown freshman who left a big piece of his heart in Boise

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Ben Skinner's first day of class at Georgetown University is Wednesday, Aug. 29. The 18-year-old freshman will study government and film but said he still has a few years before deciding a major.

"But I definitely want to work for a nonprofit," he said.

He has quite a head start, having founded OATHS--Organization Assisting the Homeless Student--aiding nearly 500 Boise boys and girls who don't have a home, let alone school supplies, clothes or sports equipment.

The youngest of four and the son of two teachers, Skinner said he spent his summer being a "manny."

"It's a male nanny," said Skinner, explaining that he cared for a 6- and 10-year-old. Care giving has become second nature for the recent graduate of Bishop Kelly High School.

You had your dad as a teacher. What was that like?

He teaches U.S. history and government. A lot of people asked if it was weird. It really wasn't. It was quite comfortable.

Was he any more difficult on you than other students?

I sure had to study. I got an A.

Where did the idea for OATHS come from?

I was 16 and we were approaching the Christmas break in 2009. I asked my mom, who is a physical education teacher at South Junior High, if her students were looking forward to Christmas. She said, "Not really." I was shocked. It turns out that Christmas was a reminder that many of her students didn't have shelter or enough food.

Most kids would have been shocked and left it at that.

I couldn't stop thinking about it. I met with Russ Heller [director of History and Social Sciences] with the Boise School District and Jim Everett [executive director] of the Boise Y[MCA]. I got great support from Mayor Dave Bieter, too. I knew I could do something about getting educational supplies to homeless students.

How long did it take for OATHS to get going?

By the summer of 2011, I had filed a 501(c)3 to establish a nonprofit, and once that happened, we designed a one-page application.

How do you get those applications into the hands of homeless students?

We got permission to distribute them to local shelters and Boise schools.

I'm guessing that it's difficult for these kids to ask for help.

At first they were really shy. But then I would ask if they needed new shoes. They said yes. Do need a backpack? Yes. Paper, notebooks? Yes and yes. I think they were more comfortable in talking to one of their peers, rather than an adult.

But you supply much more than paper and notebooks.

Absolutely. Sports equipment, musical instruments. We sent some kids to camp this summer and we paid for prom tickets and caps and gowns for some high-school kids.

How do you fund raise?

Our very first event was a dance, bake sale and film festival at Bishop Kelly. We solicit donations and we've received grants from the Idaho Community Foundation and the Idaho Women's Charitable Foundation.

How much have you raised to date?

Fifty thousand dollars. And we've helped 500 students.

But now it's time to hand this off. You need to start thinking about college.

Actually, when I'm at Georgetown, I hope to meet with Washington, D.C., homeless shelters and possibly set up a chapter of OATHS in that city.

But is OATHS sustainable here in Boise, in your absence?

We already have four seniors from B.K. who are what we call "ambassadors" to interact with homeless students. Plus, we have 10 younger students to help out on a regular basis. Last year, we had as many as 200 people help OATHS.

And your ultimate goal?

That one kid can find his or her own way out of homelessness. These are great kids and it's so unfair for them to have this huge burden. People told us early on that we would have too many requests for help, and I always said that if we couldn't afford to fill the request, we would keep raising funds until we could.

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