Lia, Hopeful Hearts Club, 2016 Volunteer of the Year

Manitowoc girl, 12, Volunteer of the Year

, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin 7 p.m. CDT August 15, 2016

MANITOWOC – Friends, family, volunteers and community members gathered at the 2016 Showtime event to enjoy the annual variety show, but secretly they were there to support Lia Haile.

Lia 2016 Volunteer of the Year(Photo: Alyssa Bloechl/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

Lia was astounded to learn that she was being honored as the 2016 Tom Drill/City of Manitowoc Volunteer of the Year.

“She didn’t know and we wanted it to be a big surprise,” Lia’s mom Tania said.

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Lia, 12, is a Wilson Middle School seventh-grader and the founder of the Hopeful Hearts Club, which benefits the children and families at Manitowoc’s homeless shelter Hope House. The club, which has grown to more than 700 members in the last four years, does a number of projects including hosting birthday parties and creating welcome bags for the children who arrive.

“I just thought, oh my gosh, wow,” Lia said of her reaction to receiving the award.

While driving home from Showtime, Lia said something that struck Tania and her father Dan.

“She said this was important, because the people of Manitowoc chose her for it,” Tania said. “Everything she does helps the people here, so this is very special for her.”

Mayor Justin Nickels gave Lia a key to the city, presented her slab on the Volunteer Walk of Fame along the Manitowoc River and shared a photo of her on Facebook detailing an astounding list of her accomplishments since she started the Hopeful Hearts Club with two friends in 2012.

“Her unique age and accomplishments really stuck out for me,” Nickels said.

He said one of the many reasons she was chosen this year was because of her speaking to the City’s Common Council April 18, asking for the aldermen to approve a news location and subsequent permits for Hope House. In her speech, she outlined the worries she has for the people who visit Hope House and how the move would affect them.

“I think it’s our job to make sure Hope House finds a new place to open its doors because these kids are the future,” Lia said in her speech. “They are the ones who will take what they learn and experience and carry that with them forever. If they feel loved, they will spread love.”

Nickels said it is not easy to get up and speak in front of a bunch of elected officials. After her speech, the council unanimously approved a needed Conditional Use Permit.

“For her to speak about what she believes in and her principals … it’s pretty cool for a 12-year-old to understand that at this point in her life,” Nickels said.

In the last year alone, Lia’s good work has made a national impact. She appeared in the U.S. Cellular Future of Good campaign in December 2015 and received $10,000 for Hope House, she appeared in “People” magazine in February and she appeared on the “Rachael Ray Show” in April and was given a $5,000 Toys R Us gift card to use for Hope House.

“Lia is a very exceptional young lady. If our world could produce millions more like her, our rather impaired globe would be in much better shape than it is,” Tom Drill said. “Congrats, Lia. I’m so proud and happy to know you and all you have achieved. Keep up the wonderful work and stay on our Lakeshore please.”

With the Hopeful Hearts Club, Lia said her favorite thing is hosting the birthday parties.

“They are always fun because I get to know the kids, their interests and hobbies, and I try to put that information into a fun cake and decorations,” Lia said.

The idea for the parties came around when Lia and Tania were dropping off donations at Hope House and Lia met a little boy who said his birthday was coming up.

“He said he wasn’t celebrating, and I felt sad about that,” Lia said. “We talked to the director and asked if we could throw him a party.”

Since the parties started, the Hopeful Hearts Club has had more than 50 celebrations for children who have a birthday while staying at Hope House. Local businesses have become huge supporters for the Club and the parties, including Copps Food Center and Party Pizzazz among others.

Hope House Director and Family Advocate Erin Schultz met Lia when she was 9 and hosting the first birthday party at Hope House.

“I think about my own 9-year-old self, and I was not thinking about those things,” Schultz said of Lia worrying about the children not celebrating.

The people at Hope House, including the staff and volunteers, feel the morale boost Lia brings to their work.

“She gives the kids the opportunity to be a child, even if it is just for a day,” Schultz said. “It creates a ripple effect, because the parents don’t have to worry about providing a gift for the child and they don’t worry about letting their child down.”

In addition to the parties, the club has a monthly fun event, she hosts a food drive, school drive and toy drive each year with thousands of donated items from the Manitowoc community. She also coordinates the creation of the Welcome Bags for each child who walks into Hope House, which each have a blanket, pillow case, stuffed animals and other necessary things like toothbrushes.

Lia also helped procure funding from Lowes and a grant to help create a safe and fun backyard at Hope House.

“We’re so proud of her, she works so hard to help others,” Tania said. “These last four years are a huge part of who she is, and the people here love, embrace and encourage her to keep going. That’s huge.”

Tania said that children have such great ideas, and if encouraged they can use their love to help others.

Lia has done even more than is described in this article. To see updates and for more information about her ongoing drives, visit the Hopeful Hearts Club

On Oct. 16, Lia will be featured as the Green Bay Packers’ Kick Off Kid.

The Tom Drill/Volunteer of the Year Award will be an ongoing program for years to come, and as each recipient is chosen, a new slab will be installed to help the Volunteer Walk of Fame grow.