Formerly homeless teenager now runs soap business and donates to charity

Donovan Smith and his mother Casey Phillips-Smith.
Donovan Smith and his mother Casey Phillips-Smith. Photo: Julie Daniels

I hope you take pride in all you have accomplished," the president wrote to the formerly homeless child.

Donovan Smith knows what it's like to be in need: He lived in a New Mexico homeless shelter after his single mother lost her job and their apartment.

For six months, the Henderson House in Albuquerque was his home.

I just thought people need to be helped, and I decided to do that.

That was about five years ago.

Donovan Smith was formerly homeless. Then he started a soapmaking enterprise and donated the profits to charity.
Donovan Smith was formerly homeless. Then he started a soapmaking enterprise and donated the profits to charity.  Photo: Julie Daniels

Today, Donovan has his own business - an online shop that sells artisanal bath soaps he made himself using aloe vera and goat's milk. He's donated hundreds of dollars of his earnings to a nonprofit that helped him and his mother when they were homeless. He's also given thousands of soaps to organizations that help people in need.

Most recently, Donovan emerged as an advocate for child abuse victims: Two weeks ago, he posted a video on social media urging kids to open up if they're being abused.

Inspired by the horrific death of a young girl that rocked Albuquerque, the video made headlines across New Mexico.

He's received awards - not to mention letters from President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, who praised him for his charitable work.

"I hope you take pride in all you have accomplished," the president wrote. "By putting your best effort into everything you do and working around a common purpose, you can help shape the world we share and lift up the lives of others. Young people like you are tomorrow's leaders, and you give me great hope for the future."

Donovan has achieved all of that - and more - at 13.


"He's always been wiser and smarter," his mother, Casey Phillips-Smith, told The Washington Post. "He's always been like this since he was little. Always been a considerate and caring child. I'm very lucky to have him."

Phillips-Smith spent almost four years in the Navy before, she said, she was discharged in the early 1990s because of an injury. Later, she lost her job as a catering chef and, because of health problems, couldn't find employment, she said.

In 2011, she and Donovan left Georgia to live in a homeless shelter for female veterans in Albuquerque, while her adult son and daughter lived with friends and relatives. Six months later, she began receiving disability benefits, and she and her son moved into special housing for veterans.

In 2014, when Donovan was 11, he started his bath products business.

His mother had taught him the basics of making soap, and Donovan figured out the rest by attending classes.

He's made a variety of specialty soaps. Some smelled like bacon and pecan and peach pies, his mother said. The products for which he is best known are more elaborate and look like glazed doughnuts, corn on the cob, cupcakes, cookies, hamburgers, eggs and snow globes.

First, he sold his bath products in person, securing a booth at the Rail Yards Market in Albuquerque, where he sold his products every weekend.

Every week, his mother said, "he was up at 4 a.m. on Sunday, packing his wagon with all of his soaps."

The business has since evolved into an online shop on Etsy, where Donovan has made hundreds of sales.

The home-schooled seventh-grader also came up with the name for his business: Toil and Trouble, inspired by "Macbeth." (He's an avid Shakespeare reader.)

Although Donovan has gained attention for his work, that's not what he's after.

"I don't know, I just want to help," he said by telephone. "I just thought people need to be helped, and I decided to do that."

And the recent death of 10-year-old Victoria Martens, an Albuquerque girl who was drugged, raped and killed, inspired Donovan to use his social media platforms to raise awareness about child abuse.

In the brief video posted on Facebook and Instagram last month, shortly after Victoria's death, Donovan said:

"My mother and my brother both love me and I think that they'll do anything to protect me. But sadly, that's not the case for some kids. Something tragic has happened recently in New Mexico. It happens far too often. If you are a kid that's been abused, I need you to be brave, and I need you to find an adult that you trust and tell them that you're being hurt, and keep telling them until they listen. 'Cause someone hurting you is not cool."

Days after it was posted, Donovan became the subject of an editorial in the Albuquerque Journal.

"The seventh-grader has spent the last two years proving that depending on a single mom and teetering on the edge of homelessness can inspire greatness," the paper's editorial board wrote.

The editorial was published after Donovan was honoured with a Youth Choice Award at the McDonald's 365Black Community Awards.

The honour was given out in a ceremony broadcast by BET.

It wasn't the young teen's first national TV appearance.

He was also featured on The Queen Latifah Show.

"He's not trying to get rich; he wants to give back to those that have helped him," Kellie Tillerson, of the St. Martin's Hospitality Centre in Albuquerque, said on the show.

If you saw Independence Day: Resurgence, you probably saw him, too: He played a minor role as Marcus, one of the campers in the movie.

Despite his accomplishments, Donovan said he's just like any other kid his age. He loves, for instance, to play video games on his Xbox.

"I also love sports games," he said. "I have a big collection of games."

In recent months, Donovan has not been selling soaps. He said he decided to take a break and temporarily close his online shop.

But his charity work continues.

He also hopes to start writing a children's book series about homelessness. Having experienced it himself, he said, he wants to help other kids who go through the ordeal.

Washington Post