Meet Sierra RyanWallick - the incredible founder of nonprofit AutumnLeaf Fundraisers which has impacted her community and beyond, all while having Lyme Disease.
Tell us about your choice to take a gap year!
First, let me give you some background. I have been homeschooled my whole life, allowing me to create my own classes and pursue my passions with the flexibility to conduct business during schooldays and change around my school schedule. This flexibility was a lifesaver after I contracted Lyme Disease and was able to continue schoolwork during the summer and breaks to catch up from when I was not feeling well. I am very thankful to have been homeschooled, and I packed my high school career with as many self-learning experiences and extra curricular activities as I could, but I felt like I needed a year to myself with no deadlines and time to explore who I am without high school constrictions.
My decision to take a gap year (which I am currently taking) was mostly based on my setting aside some time to work on my physical and mental health. I also wanted to explore the many interests that I did not feel I had enough time or energy during high school to pursue. For example, I am a creative writer and photographer, and I wanted more time to pursue those creative endeavors before going to the University of Delaware next year to study Entrepreneurship and Technology Innovation.
Another reason to take a gap year was because I wanted to build connections and put more time and energy into my network of professional contacts and friends. In high school, I do not feel I put enough energy into friendships and keeping up relationships. I was so focused on my goals that I failed to realize how important relationships are for mental health and to help me reach my goals. I have a lot of “connections” in my community, but I want to focus on building those connections and creating solid relationships over my gap year.
I have also been able to pursue other opportunities with the extra year before college. Some examples so far include: attempting to reach my nonprofit’s cumulative goal of $75,000 by the end of the year; becoming a mentor for a new program called Dual School in Wilmington, DE, where we take students’ ideas and turn them into action using one-on-one mentoring; and being accepted as an Ambassador for the Diamond Challenge for High School Entrepreneurs, which is an international high school pitch competition! I assist with the program and am able to share my experience of winning third place last year in the Diamond Challenge Social Venture category (out of 700 teams). This was an incredible experience, where I was able to meet many amazing people from around the world!
If it wasn’t for my decision to take a gap year, I might not have been able to experience these awesome opportunities or meet the many cool people that I have! Who knows what I will pursue for the rest of my gap year, but I encourage anyone considering taking a gap year to reach out and talk with me or someone else who has made that choice because it may change the course of your life!
Tell us about your nonprofit.
My nonprofit is called AutumnLeaf Fundraisers (ALF), and I founded ALF when I was 10 years old. We have raised over $65,000 for local charities (primarily Forgotten Cats in the DE, PA, MD, and NJ areas) by hand making and selling items at local community events, donating 100% of the money! The first year, I made beaded bracelets and washcloths and raised $100 by having a table at a local farmers market. We have raised more every year since and last year, we raised over $15,000!
The items we sell include handmade shea butter soap (made by my mom), photo cards, wooden card books, wooden ornaments (made by my dad), jewelry, art, catnip toys, and knit (I do most of the knitting), crocheted, and sewn items including hats, scarves, cat mats, etc.! We’re always looking for new handmade items to sell at our events throughout the year, since we attend more than 20 events and are the most successful if our inventory stays over $10,000 worth of items.
Our ALF volunteers are mostly youth and senior citizens and it has been remarkable what a difference our organization has made in their lives! For the youth volunteers, we have given them a passion to follow and goals to work towards, but the change I am most proud of is the difference we have seen in our senior volunteers. Our oldest volunteer is 93-year-old Sophie, who has made hundreds of catnip toys and other items for us to sell. We have raised over a thousand dollars with Sophie’s items, and her daughter says that her mom is always so tickled that we appreciate her items and that she is making an impact.
In the future, I would love to continue raising money for causes I am passionate about with this ALF fundraising method. My hope is to expand this method in other areas so that anyone can raise money for any cause they are passionate about anywhere in the country or world!
You can check out my nonprofit’s Facebook page (@AutumnLeaf Fundraisers) and see some of our items (we ship and our items make great Christmas gifts!) here: https://www.facebook.com/AutumnLeafFundraisers/
How have you balanced your nonprofit and school with having Lyme Disease?
It definitely has not been easy balancing school work with extracurricular activities and keeping up with my nonprofit, all with between 0-4 hours of “good energy” a day.
The summer before my freshman year of high school, I had a fever, which tremendously decreased my energy, and I never recovered. I tested positive and was diagnosed with Lyme Disease, and I have been challenged with debilitating fatigue, cognitive fog, sleep disturbances, among other symptoms, ever since.
Due to my extremely low energy and severe brain fog throughout high school, I found it very difficult to balance everything in my life with only a few hours of good energy a day. I have many interests and passions, but I was frustrated with my limitations and felt helpless and betrayed by my body. For my sophomore year of high school, it took me two years to complete my coursework because of these health issues.
I considered giving up my nonprofit since it was taking energy that could be put towards schoolwork. However, after attending a National Jefferson Award Ceremony in 2014, where I received a Jefferson Award for my nonprofit, I was invited to a GlobeChangers bootcamp to work on my project. From this experience, I realized that my passion for my nonprofit and making a difference was an inspiration in my life that I did not want to give up.
It is still a challenge for me to find the best way to balance all of my interests and put my health first, but I continue looking for ways to improve. I have found that scheduling days when I know I need to rest is very important, otherwise I burn out and feel unproductive because my “gas tank” is all out of fuel. I learned that if I keep pushing and force myself to exert all of my energy to get tasks done without any breaks, then it takes longer for me to recover. I am still unable to participate in all the activities I want or pursue all the ideas I have for projects, but I am proud that I have been able to accomplish so much with the limited energy and other challenges I have been given.
Sierra’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sierraryanwallick
Facebook: Sierra RyanWallick