This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

Ryan Brantolino was 8 years old and had a friend who needed help.

A friend in her fourth-grade class, along with his mother, had just fled from abuse at home. They were staying at a local women’s shelter and had nothing but the clothes on their backs. No change of clothes. No toys.

“I’m thinking to myself, well, I have all this stuff and I don’t even use it,” said Brantolino, now a 15-year-old rising junior at Hibriten High School. “I was like, well, what can we do to help?”That turned into the Ton of Love Project, which gathers donations of clothing and household items for the Shelter Home of Caldwell County and Yokefellow of Caldwell County. And the “ton” in the name isn’t colloquial. Brantolino’s goal was to collect and donate a ton – 2,000 pounds – of donations.

She has reached that goal twice over. To date, the Ton of Love Project has donated 4,200 pounds of clothing and other items.

From the beginning, people mobilized around Brantolino’s project. Her extended family has sent donations from as far as Rhode Island. Her church, St. Francis of Assisi in Lenoir, volunteered to serve as a donation site. Caldwell County 4H has consistently made donations as well.

These days, between school, 4H meetings and soccer practice, Brantolino doesn’t always have time to drop off her donations in person. But when she does, she said, she’s reminded of why she started the project in the first place.

“Whenever I see the little kids at the shelter seeing these big boxes of clothing – their eyes just light up,” she said. “I guess that’s just what keeps me going with this project.”

In a conversation with Brantolino, it’s easy to focus on the two tons of donations and forget that she’s just 15. But she hasn’t forgotten – and she has plans for the Ton of Love Project that reach far into the future.

In college, and after, she plans to launch the same efforts wherever she’s living. She’d like to find someone to take over the Caldwell branch while she’s doing that, but she isn’t sure yet who that would be.

As far as how long she’ll keep the project going, though?

“Just forever,” she said. “Until I physically cannot do it anymore.”