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Teen soap-maker Donovan Smith is used to navigating life’s ebb and flow – and he does it all with a smile.
In recent days, he’s found a lot more to smile about.
For years, the Albuquerque youth has thought beyond himself and found ways to contribute to his community.
His fame spread after he started making bars of soap – by the thousands – which he donates to St. Martin’s Hospitality Center for distribution to homeless people.
This year, he has donated 12,500 bars of soap.
Donovan, 14, was once homeless, so he understands the impact a bar of soap can have on a person.
“It can give someone the confidence to go out to a job interview,” he says in his shy manner. “Being able to be clean makes it possible for people to go out and make a difference in their lives.”
Donovan and his mother, Casey Smith, moved to Albuquerque from Augusta, Ga., in 2011 after hitting hard times. Casey Smith is a former Navy cryptologist.
Then last year, Donovan’s philanthropic nature was recognized and he received a McDonald’s 365Black Community Choice Youth Award, which is given annually to outstanding youths who are doing great work in their communities. The award show was broadcast nationally on BET last September, and people from all over took notice.
“Soapers” from across the U.S. began to donate soaps and offer support, including such luminaries as Queen Latifah and Wesley Snipes.
On Aug. 29, Donovan’s life changed again for the better.
The teen got a visit from TV personality Mike Rowe and his new Facebook show, “Returning the Favor.”
The concept of the show is simple – to find people who are doing something decent in their community and do something decent for them. Since Donovan’s story was first shown on Aug. 29, the video has amassed more than 4 million views on Facebook.
While they were here, Rowe and his crew did something special for Donovan. They transformed an office space – at 205 Silver SW – into a storefront that now houses Donovan Discovers.
It’s a retail space where Donovan can sell his soaps – some filled with loofahs, others molded into corn on the cob shapes or ice cream scoops.
It’s also has a place where he can relax and be a 14-year-old, play video games and study (he is home-schooled).
Most important, it’s a workshop where he was able to expand his soap-making output.
“It’s been pretty nice,” Donovan says. “A lot of people have come out to support it. I’m a whole lot busier. … It’s been very busy everywhere.”
The soft-spoken teen is getting used to getting attention and having his own store.
“All I can think of is that I’m grateful and thankful for the space,” Donovan says. “The space has been pretty amazing.”
As part of the show – and without the knowledge of Donovan or his mother – the store was put together and presented as a surprise.
Rowe told them the space was paid for, for year – the utilities, too.
And Casey Smith was given a new car – paid in full and with the insurance paid for a year.
“We think that what you guys have done and the way you’re doing it is awesome,” Rowe says in the series. “And to the extent that we can return the favor. That’s why we’re here.”
True to Donovan’s giving nature, he’s already working hard to make soaps for the survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Houston.
And he’s giving the community an opportunity to help out.
From noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Donovan will host a soaping party for the community at his store.
“We’re inviting the community to come out and help make as many soaps as possible. It could be anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 soaps that we will send to Houston,” his mom says.
Donovan says the soaps should come in handy for those who experienced flooding.
“The water is contaminated, and you have no idea what’s inside the water,” he says.
Now that Donovan has the store, he has a plan.
“With the store, I have a few goals for development,” he says. “I want to hire homeless people and people that are on the edge of being homeless. I want to have them as employees here. I’ve also been making shampoos for St. Martin’s. I do what I can.”
Casey says she’s grateful that the community wants to help and is taking notice.
“It’s kind of like a jump start that we needed and that we would have never asked for,” she says of being given the storefront. “There’s no way I would have been able to afford this. We might be able to afford this space by this time next year.”
UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to Arts editor Adrian Gomez firstname.lastname@example.org.