“Stop the car!” Koedi Nealy, just seven at the time, cried out to her mother on their drive home from school. “There’s a homeless family with a sign saying they’re hungry. We have snacks and water we can give to them,” she urged.
Touched by her daughter’s compassion, Koedi’s mom pulled over. As they gave the family something to eat and drink, Koedi eyed the little boy who looked about her age. She thought about her warm house and bed. Why is nobody helping them? Why do they have to live like this? her tender heart wondered.
For days after, Koedi kept thinking about the family and ached to do something to help. She even shared her desire with her parents, who smiled and praised her good heart. But they told her kindly that she was just a little girl and the problem was so big.
Then one day, Koedi watched with surprise as one of her mom’s friends grabbed a handful of pennies from the cup holder in her car and tossed them in the trash.
“They’re not worth much,” she quipped.
Koedi’s mind flashed to that family on the street corner. I bet they would love to have them, she thought. After that day, Koedi began noticing pennies on the ground, that people stepped over. And an idea sparked.
One penny might not be worth much, but pennies can add up to a lot-and help a lot of people, Koedi thought.
What did Koedi Nealy learn about how pennies can change lives?
Koedi began collecting pennies and, as word spread, classmates, teachers and even her principal began bringing baggies, jars and containers full, dubbing her the “penny girl.” Koedi used the pennies to buy peanut butter crackers, water, and hygiene products, stowing the goods in her mom’s car to hand out to people in need on the streets of Houston.
As she watched the pennies begin to overflow out of the containers in her closet and seeing the gratitude on people’s faces when she reached out to them, Koedi’s giving spirit soared. She took her yellow notebook and started a list of people she wanted to help-the homeless, residents in nursing homes and children in orphanages and hospitals.
Over the next several years, simply by collecting pennies, she made contributions to everyone on her list. Through her work, she began hearing about Christian ministries. She wasn’t sure what a ministry was but knew they helped a lot of people, and she begged her parents to let her start one of her own.
Given her young age, they were initially reluctant but after never-ending pleading, they realized their daughter’s dedication and determination was unstoppable. Finally, her mom took her to an attorney and, in May 2015, at just 13 years old, Koedi launched Graced Ministry, a nonprofit to raise money and awareness for the homeless and other people in need.
What do these pennies go towards?
Wanting to inspire other young people, Koedi started an ambassador program for kids ages seven and up to join Graced Ministry. She also partnered with other nonprofits in her area. With the additional support, she was able to provide even more love and assistance, from monetary donations to basic necessities to literally changing lives. Koedi gets choked up remembering one 46-year-old homeless man named Dave who, with tears streaming down his face, told her how much he longed to have a safe place to live. With help from HOPE Haven, which helps the homeless find housing, Koedi made that happen.
In the five years since she started Graced Ministry, Koedi, now 18 and about to start college, has helped hundreds of people find help and hope. And she plans to expand the ministry with national outreach programs. She has recently published a children’s book titled Pennies from Heaven (available on her website with proceeds going back into the ministry) that teaches young readers that even pennies can lead to miracles.
“To me, pennies represent the overlooked and undervalued people in society. But when multiple people join together to do good, no matter how young or old, the value of what we do increases exponentially, just like pennies,” Koedi explains. “I hope my story inspires others to see that the passion they have can change the world!”
How can other people use coins for good?
Want to be more like Koedi Nealy? Anyone can take these steps!
Donate at Coinstar.
Log on to Coinstar.com, click “Find a kiosk” and type in your zip code. After you’ve located one in your area, take the jar of coins to your local kiosk, dump in your change and select a charity you want to donate your loose change to. From Feeding America, Children’s Miracle Network, NAACP and World Wildlife Fund, you’ll change lives and Coinstar waives their usual fee!
Download this app.
Help others with your digital spare change! Simply download the free app Coin Up and select a charity you care about. Then link your debit or credit card and spend as you usually would. Each time you use your card, the amount is rounded up to the next dollar and the difference is added to your contribution. At the end of the month, your total of “spare change” will be sent to the charity you picked.
Pay it forward.
Collect your loose change from the week and take it with you to your favorite coffee shop or bakery. Then buy a cup of coffee or pastry for someone in line behind you to start a “pay-it-forward” chain. Another fun way to use your change? Purchase a few necessities at the dollar store and donate to a local shelter to help someone in need.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.