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A 250-mile walk for the homeless is just the latest of his many charitable initiatives.
By ANDREW MEACHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published November 4, 2007
SEFFNER - Younger than most of the people in the crowd, 9-year-old Zach Bonner stepped to the side of the lectern so that people could see him.
He thanked sponsors of his 250-mile walk for the homeless, which was about to start.
"What bothers me is what homeless kids go through," Zach said. "What happens when they go to sleep? What happens when they wake up?"
Then he and dozens of well wishers left the Lazydays RV Supercenter and headed north on County Road 579.
Along with his mother and sister, Zach plans to walk to Tallahassee. By doing so, he hopes to raise money for homeless children through a foundation he started three years ago.
They will sleep in a donated RV.
Zach whipped up the effort in two months. It will take the rest of November to reach Tallahassee and Gov. Charlie Crist, who says he will walk the last mile with Zach to the capitol building.
His family doesn't know why Zach works so hard organizing charity drives for hurricane victims, underprivileged children and the homeless. Even Zach has a hard time explaining it.
"This is a young man who is putting his heart, his soul and his shoe leather to help kids he has never met," said Bob Buckhorn, a former Tampa City Council member.
Zach e-mailed the Lazydays Partners Foundation in August to tell them about his walk, and asked for an RV. If all goes according to plan, Zach and his sister, Kelley, 20, and mother, Laurie Bonner, 40, will walk 11 miles a day for 23 days. The RV from Lazydays will hopscotch up the state in increments, lodging mostly in state parks. The walkers will be shuttled by careach morning to their previous day's stopping point.
Zach's been practicing, but before Saturday he had not walked further than 6 miles at a stretch. He enjoys basketball, baseball and the Cub Scouts. He thinks his Wii Sports video game is "really, really cool."
He lives with his mother in Valrico and studies at a state-sponsored online school, where he is in the fourth grade. Asked about his father, Zach replied, "Not in the picture."
Hurricane Charley in 2004 gave Zach, then 6, his first dose of inspiration. He went door to door, collecting water and other supplies for storm victims.
"I said, 'That was good, Zach, you've done the whole neighborhood,'" his mother said. "He said, 'Why can't we go to another neighborhood?'"
In four months, Zach said, he brought 27 truckloads of supplies to distribution centers.
By the time Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi, Zach knew how to raise money. But federal law limited the amounts he could raise.
So the family called the IRS and asked how to set up a nonprofit corporation.
He began charity efforts that continue -- a monthly backpack giveaway to schoolchildren, and Christmas presents this year and last for Katrina victims.
In 2006, Zach met President Bush at Tampa International Airport, where the president presented him with a service award.
By then, Zach had broadened his vision to helping the homeless. He turned his attention to getting sponsors for his non-profit, the Little Red Wagon Foundation.
He met with homeless children to find out how they lived. He spent one night in a cardboard box. Buccaneer Mike Alstott sent Zach a check. Former President Bill Clinton bantered with him in Miami.
The past year, his mother said, Zach has made his own phone calls. He has raised more than $70,000 for his foundation, and has picked a beneficiary, StandUp for Kids, for his charity walk.
What bothers him most, Zach said, is people who don't believe he can accomplish his goals. One celebrity he refuses to name laughed in his face when Zach told the celebrity that his foundation could raise $1-million.
Others adults he has approached for the foundation have told him to just go home, Zach said.
Too many adults react the way he does when he thinks about cleaning up his room a "pigsty," according to his mother.
"I think, 'It's too big of a mess to clean up,'" Zach said. "So I close the door so my mom can't see it. And that's how we are treating youth homelessness."
For the next few nights, the Bonners will sleep in Hillsborough State Park. As they walk north, along U.S. 441 and U.S. 90, their RV base will move to an RV park in Wildwood, then to Silver Springs and other state parks.
Zach will walk mornings and early evenings. He plans to spend some afternoons speaking to classes about the importance of staying home and finishing school.
"You know how some kids like football, and they will eat and breathe and sleep football?" Zach's mother says. "Well, he's really into this. This is what makes him happy."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (813) 661-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Last modified November 3, 2007, 23:13:28]