by Ashley Bouwense
For Long Valley Middle School student, Mackenzie Rice, decorating gingerbread houses has always been a treasured holiday family tradition. This past Christmas season, Rice brought the tradition to Homeless Solutions in Morristown.
This big project all started out with a little idea.
“Making a gingerbread house with my family is highlight of the Christmas season for me,” Rice explained, “and one day I thought, ‘wouldn’t other people like to make them, too?’”
Rice had the inspiration mid-October. The 12-year-old knew she wanted to share her family’s tradition with people in need, but there was a lot of planning to be done.
First, Rice needed a place to donate the houses. She wanted to bring them to a homeless shelter, and she decided to donate the houses to Homeless Solutions in Morristown. Rice called the project Gingerbread Home for the Holidays.
Rice’s mom, Shannon Rice, knew that this project would need to be funded. Candy, alone, to decorate the houses would be a big expense. So, Rice and her mother went to Long Valley Middle School (LVMS) and Benedict A. Cucinella School to ask students to donate their Halloween candy to the cause. Families came in droves with bags upon bags of Halloween candy to support Rice’s project.
“When I saw all of the support we got,” Shannon Rice said, “I knew this idea could work.”
Not only did Rice receive an abundance of support from the Long Valley school community, but she also had the support of families in the surrounding area as well as big companies such as M&M Mars and Toll House. Rice raised $550 for her project.
The unforeseen and much-appreciated funding led Rice to believe that she could do more. In addition to delivering the gingerbread houses to the shelter, she used the extra money to buy Shoprite and Walmart gift cards for the families at Homeless Solutions.
Throughout November, Rice met with her peers in the National Junior Honor Society to bake and create the gingerbread houses. The first time the group met at LVMS, they made the gingerbread dough, cut the pieces for the houses and baked them. The second time the group met, they constructed the cookie houses with royal icing. The group made 23 houses. Planning, preparation and execution totaled to about 40 hours.
Rice and her mother chuckled as they recalled the messy building process.
“Each house takes about an hour-and-a-half to build, but the process went by quickly with everyone on-board!” Rice said.
Rice, her mother and four of Rice’s friends delivered the gingerbread houses along with a basket filled with decorating candy and gift cards to Homeless Solutions Dec. 22 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. During that time, Rice and the other volunteers decorated the houses and socialized with the children.
“Talking with the kids made me realize how much of a difference this project had on their holiday,” Rice said. “I definitely want to do it again next year.”
“I’m floored by her work,” Shannon Rice said. “Our children inspire my husband and me to be philanthropic.” Rice’s older brother, Zach, organizes an annual 5K run called Action for Distraction to raise money to buy gaming systems for rooms in Goryeb Children’s Hospital.
“People get so distracted by their busy lives,” she continued, “but my children have helped me see the importance of taking time to help others.”
On their way to deliver the gingerbread houses, Rice received an email to congratulate her as the first place recipient of Heart of America’s 2016 Gee Whiz Kid Award. The Heart of America, a program that empowers children to make a positive collaborative change in their communities, awarded Rice with a $250 scholarship, which she will put towards her college fund.
“It’s not about the award,” Rice put humbly. “It’s about helping others and making a difference!”
Rice and her mom want to encourage others to get out and help their communities. They explained how it all started with a simple idea and, with some brainstorming and teamwork, the idea grew to make a huge difference.