:Rebecca Leatherwood's commitment paid off: She finally raised enough funds to purchase 130 teddy bears for a girls' home in Thailand. - Special Photo
COVINGTON -- Sixteen-year-old Rebecca Leatherwood knows what it's like to face hardship in childhood.
Suffering from mild cerebral palsy, Leatherwood had to wear braces on her legs in her early years and was incessantly bullied at school. Eventually, she left the public school system to be home-schooled. Leatherwood knows, too, about the way society demands that girls look a certain way to be considered beautiful and how difficult it can be when you don't fit that mold.
"I started to wonder why I was here and what purpose there was in my life," she said.
While these difficulties have caused Leatherwood pain, they've also been the motivation for her to reach out to others who need encouragement and comfort.
Leatherwood's heart goes out to girls in distress, particularly those she's heard about for the last several years, ever since she joined Prospect United Methodist Church in west Newton. The pastor there, the Rev. Ronny Brannen, supports a ministry that has a home, House of Grace, in Thailand for girls who are at risk of being sold into sexual slavery.
Leatherwood first heard about House of Grace when she was 13, and a friend was raising money to go on a mission trip to Thailand. Leatherwood managed to pull together $100 to donate to her friend. It's a cause that's been close to her heart ever since.
"The House of Grace is important for me because I had a really difficult childhood," Leatherwood said. Many girls at House of Grace have been orphaned, abused and neglected.
"When I found about House of Grace, I saw how well they handled it and how they transformed (girls') lives and I went back in my life and saw what happened to me and how I could relate to them a little bit," she said.
Last November, Leatherwood got a fundraising idea of her own, as she was leaving a Build-A-Bear Workshop. She'd gone in to buy something for herself, but, "When I came out that day I came out with the idea to do Build-A-Bears for House of Grace," she said.
Over the next 10 months, Leatherwood worked and worked to raise enough funds to purchase 130 bears at $10 apiece. Dollar by dollar, her supply kept growing, but it was such a slow process, "There were times when I didn't think it was meant to happen."
Leatherwood got a job cutting grass, and, after first tithing, set aside a portion of her earnings to the cause. She wrote a letter explaining the mission of House of Grace and solicited neighbors for donations. She even created a PowerPoint presentation that she presented at her current school, Woodlee's Christian Academy. Students and parents there donated $301.
But they gave Leatherwood far more than money: "After being bullied because I had braces on my legs, for me to have kids running up to me asking me about how the bears are going, it's very special to me because I didn't have any friends at all. To go from that to this is dramatic."
Leatherwood especially appreciates the 3- and 4-year-olds at her school who are interested in the project.
"Being able to be a role model to them is very important," she said.
Leatherwood said she wants the girls at House of Grace, who must share bedrooms, clothes and nearly everything else, to each have something of their own.
"I want them to know there are people out there who do love them and care about them," she said.
Leatherwood kept her plans to donate the bears to House of Grace a secret from her pastor until a few days ago.
"This will be just another way that they know somebody loves them and cares for them, and as they hold those bears, they'll know that somebody remembers who they are," Brannen said. "One of the things I always get when I leave is, 'Please don't forget me.'" Brannen said the bears will likely be shipped in November.
Leatherwood is eager to go to Thailand to meet the girls she's worked so hard to help, but her pastor has told her she'll have to wait until she's 18.
When she does finally go, maybe she'll tell them what they taught her, from 9,000 miles away: "Through this I figured out what my purpose is for my life -- serving and giving. I don't care if I get paid for it or not. I know I have to (make money to) live but right now I'm fine and there are people that aren't."