When he was 6 years old, riding to school in his mother’s minivan, Ethan Hill would see a strange sight every morning under a freeway in downtown Birmingham. A man was living there, all of his belongings stuffed into a grocery cart. Ethan asked his mom questions about the man he would later know as Mr. Marcus. And the colder it got that year, the more Ethan worried about him.
“It really didn’t sit right with me,” said Ethan, now 12 and a seventh grader at The Altamont School.
That Christmas, when Ethan received $100, he knew exactly what he was going to do with it. He wanted to help Mr. Marcus. He went to the internet, searched for things homeless people might need and made a shopping list.
“He created 5-gallon buckets full of supplies,” said his mom, Ebony Hill. “Everything he bought was multipurpose.” The buckets could be carried by the handle, turned upside down to make a seat and could even be used as a toilet.
Her young son’s empathy and concern for others “took us aback,” Ebony said. “I had never seen a child pass up on Christmas. But he got joy out of shopping for someone else.”
That’s when they knew “there was something special going on here,” she said. “That was the start of it all.”
Ethan’s parents took their “fearless” child out to meet Mr. Marcus and other homeless folks. “How the people received him was amazing,” Ebony said. They were “shocked” to see his earnest, happy face, with a recently lost front tooth missing, coming right up and delivering items they could use, all purchased with his own money.
The next year, Ethan bought sleeping bags to give out, but he was distraught when he ran out of them faster than he thought he would.
“He cried all the way back home,” Ebony said. She posted about it on Facebook, and soon friends and family were sending her money through CashApp. Ebony and Ethan bought more sleeping bags and drove back downtown to give them away.
“Realizing there was more need than he had realized sparked something in him,” she said.
As the holidays rolled around each year, Ethan focused on helping Mr. Marcus and other homeless people. He handed out winter survival bags and then sought help from volunteers to pack supplies at what became his first annual “packing party” in 2019, when he filled up a moving truck with items.
Every year, Ethan’s efforts were growing as he tried to keep doing more and more for the homeless. After seeing a homeless man eating out of a garbage can, he was inspired to give out emergency bags of food. By the fourth year, at age 10, “He went to pretty much year-round,” Ebony said.
During the pandemic, the Hills formed a nonprofit, Ethan’s Heart-Bags 4 Blessings. “With him going larger each time, we needed 501(c)3 status to secure funding for his ideas,” his mom said.
Ethan’s Heart has given more than 3,000 care packages to homeless residents in Birmingham.
As a result of his hard work, Ethan has received many accolades, including an appearance on “The Kelly Clarkson Show.” This year, he was one of 25 nationwide young leaders between the ages of 8 and 18 who received the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. With his $10,000 prize, along with other donations, he was able to complete his latest project, the Free Mobile Store and Educational Unit, which debuted at the end of October and “was a complete hit,” said Ebony.
Earlier this year, a law firm donated a trailer to Ethan, who originally intended for it to become a mobile shower. Instead, he converted it into an on-the-go store stocked with toiletries, food, blankets, sleeping bags and more. Now people can “shop” for what they need, which helps restore their dignity. He will also use it to visit schools and businesses to educate people about the needs of the homeless.
His mantra is emblazoned on the side of the trailer: “Every day is a day to help someone.”
“As adults, we look for tangible numbers and statistics,” Ebony said. “He thinks completely differently. He says homelessness is not an issue he can solve, but something he can chip away at. His goal is to do his part and help meet the need.”
The unstoppable Ethan keeps his parents on their toes, his mom said. But they are always supportive of their oldest son – Ethan has a 5-year-old brother, Skyler – and his passion for helping others. The whole family is in it together.
“He’s a very, very, very special kid,” his mom said. “His thing is always, ‘What’s next?’ We just put our seat belts on and strap in for the ride. If he’s in it, we’re in it. No matter what he comes up with, we’ll be right there.”
Ethan continues to stay in touch with Mr. Marcus, the man who inspired him to start helping homeless people. “He’s the first man we check on when we go out there,” he said. “I see him every week.”
In his spare time, Ethan plays in the band and likes to golf. But his big, giving heart always brings him back to homeless encampments, where he’s intent on building relationships. “Going out there every day is pretty much a normal day in the office for me,” he said.
Wise beyond his years, Ethan understands that homelessness can happen to anyone. He encourages others not to be afraid of homeless people in their communities. “Don’t think of them like they’re not human,” he advised. “Life happened to them. That could happen to you, too.”
In late October, Ethan was surprised when Disney Parks and Walt Disney World Resorts rewarded him with a trip to Disney World for his family in recognition of his efforts to help the homeless. The Hills are featured on “The Wonderful World of Disney: Magical Holiday Celebration,” now streaming on Disney+.
To learn more about Ethan’s Heart and how to help, visit ethansheartbham.org or call 205-538-2330.
This story originally appeared on This is Alabama.