HARRODSBURG — Over the last three years, Julia Higginbotham has masterminded the fleecing of more than 1,000 Mercer County residents, nearly all of them needy young kids at Christmas time.
And for that, she’ll be honored in Washington, D.C.
Higginbotham, 17, learned Monday that she’s been selected as the top high school volunteer in Kentucky by Prudential Financial for Project Keep’em Warm, which makes and distributes fleece blankets to warm up kids during the holidays.
Along with a $1,000 scholarship and silver medallion, Higginbotham’s good works have earned her a trip the nation’s capitol in May, where she’ll compete with teen representatives from the other 49 states for $5,000 in additional scholarship money and $5,000 for Project Keep’em Warm.
“For it to be this big of a deal, I can’t believe it, but I’m glad it did,” Higginbotham said Tuesday during an interview at Mercer Senior High School.
The idea for Keep’em Warm was born in 2009 when Higginbotham, then 15, told her parents, Teresa and Chris Higginbotham of Salvisa, that she felt the need to give something back to the community that had supported her as she played youth sports and participated in 4-H activities.
“I was always selling raffle tickets, candy bars and stuff; I was always asking people for money,” she explained. “I wanted to give something back.”
Higginbotham decided making fleece blankets would be her contribution. She learned the craft in 4-H as a fourth grader and had enjoyed making them as gifts for family and friends. She can make a two-ply, 4 x 4 foot fleece blanket in about 30 minutes. Three people working together can do it in 15 minutes, she said.
In searching for a way to distribute her creations to those who needed them most, Higginbotham turned to the Harrodsburg Herald’s Love Tree, which collects toys and donations to provide Christmas gifts to kids in struggling families.
2009 was an especially tough economic year, and the Love Tree was ripe with the names of more than 400 kids in need. Higginbotham set an impossibly lofty goal —¿make enough blankets for every child on the list. In October, she began posting flyers and soliciting donations to buy the fleece. Blanket-making workshops were held in churches and other locations around the county. By early December, there was a blanket for every kid.
“It was awesome to see the community come out like that,” Higginbotham recalled.
April Ellis, the Herald’s general manager, said Higginbotham was awesome in her own right.
“I was very impressed that she was able to come up with a great idea and then make it happen,” Ellis said. “It’s one thing to come up with an idea; it’s another thing to see it through.
“And just the practicality of it. Those of us blessed with good jobs have heat in the house, but not everyone does. Blankets can make a big difference,” Ellis said.
Project Keep’em Warm’s success that first year was repeated again in 2010 and 2011, creating and delivering more than 350 blankets each year. So far, Higginbotham’s efforts have helped raise more than $10,000 and distributed more than 1,000 blankets to kids around Mercer County.
Higginbotham plans to attend the University of Kentucky to study biology with an interest in pharmacy, so the scholarship money from Prudential will come in handy. Even though she will have her hands full with college, she plans to keep Project Keep’em Warm going full steam.
“It will take a lot of help from the community, but from what I’ve seen the past three years, I’m not worried,” she said. “It’s almost become a ritual now.”