Eighteen-year-old Maria Paparella of Akron, founder of the nonprofit organization known as Chair-ity, has been selected as the winner of the 2016 Russ Pry Youth Award, which was presented to her at this year’s Summit for Kids Breakfast at the John S. Knight Center.
Formerly known simply as the Summit for Kids Youth Award, it was renamed this year in honor of the late Summit County Executive Russ Pry who helped create the popular Summit for Kids event.
Chair-ity is a 501(c) 3 that receives furniture and household goods from donors. These appliances are in turn given to teenagers who have emancipated through Summit County Children Services (SCCS) from the foster care system. Paparella has worked closely with SCCS in order to connect these young adults and help support them as they move into adulthood.
Although Paparella started Chair-ity when she was a 16-year-old student at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, her interest with Summit County Children Services began at an earlier age.
“I’m an only child, and when I was little, I was always nagging my parents for a sibling,” Paparella said. “I would go onto the Summit County Children Services website, to look at the photos and bios of the kids who were available for adoption.” Paparella shared that one particular teen girl stood out to her and became the inspiration behind Chair-ity.
“When I was looking at colleges, I thought, ‘I am going off to college once I graduate from high school. I will have the support of my family and my friends. This girl in agency custody is going to turn 18, and what is she going to do? When she goes to live on her own, who is going to help be a support to her?” Paparella asked.
Inspired by the need to help emancipated youth, Paparella sought the help of Karla McDay, the supervisor of SCCS’ Independent Living and Transitional Housing Program. McDay located young adults who needed furniture to live independently, and Paparella provided what was needed.
Although Paparella feels that every delivery has been a different experience, she said that her first delivery was the most impactful.
“It was just so shocking to me,” Paparella said. “To go in somewhere and be with someone that is the same age as you and see the differences in our lifestyles was really amazing. When I delivered the furniture, her house became a home.”
Paparella said the most difficult part of directing Chair-ity is the limited period of time she interacts with the young adults she works with. However, she continues to be optimistic, and strives to ‘add light’ to the lives of these young adults. One way Paparella ‘adds light’ is by providing lightbulbs along with furniture for every delivery.
“At the end of each delivery, I give them a light bulb and take a picture,” Paparella said. “It is also supposed to be a symbolic gesture. It is them shedding light on me and how thankful I am for everything I have, but also me shedding light on their situation and giving them a new hope and a new start.”
Paparella’s leadership skills do not end with Chair-ity. She also was the captain of both her high school soccer and lacrosse teams and is continuing her education at Kenyon College majoring in statistics.
Paparella plans on continuing Chair-ity after graduation. Her dream is to expand Chair-ity nationally.
“Overall, it (this experience with Chair-ity) has been super eye-opening, and I have been thankful to have this opportunity to see one life of an 18-year-old compared to the next,” Paparella said.