Sisters Briana and Athena Zhong are looking to supply essential items and uplift the spirits of vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic through their organization Gifts that Smile. Photo courtesy the Zhong family

Markham sisters supply smiles in the COVID era

  • November 18, 2020

Tracking the troubling daily news brought on by COVID-19 in the pandemic’s early months inspired Athena and Briana Zhong to conceive an altruistic sister act.

In May, the siblings based in Markham, Ont., co-founded Gifts that Smile, an initiative that distributes care packages of essential items — particularly hygiene products — to frontline workers and vulnerable populations. 

“We were drawn to help groups like seniors who may not be able to access essential items during this difficult time of social isolation,” said Athena, a third-year Western University undergraduate studying physiology and pharmacology. “We are also working with the at-risk and homeless youth at 360º Kids. We want to help as many vulnerable populations as possible.”

Acquiring capital to launch this initiative was key. Fortunately, the 14-year-old Briana and 20-year-old Athena received a $1,500 #RisingYouth community service grant offered by TakingITGlobal. They also displayed entrepreneurial savvy by securing key sponsorships or partnerships from a slew of organizations, including Plan International, GlobalMedic, Canada Service Corps and Metro Inc. grocers.

Devoting many hours to product research was also key. Fortunately, Briana and Athena received steadfast support from their friends Jiawei Zhao, Fiona Zhao and Maria Haque.

More than 350 COVID-19 care packages have been delivered to date. These packages contain shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, bars of soap, denture bath and brush sets, deodorant and sometimes crayons, balloons, stickers or handmade cards.

Briana said branding this organization as Gifts that Smile happened organically.

“Seniors have told us that they smile after they receive our care packages so that really inspired us to name the organization Gifts that Smile,” said the Grade 10 student at St. Robert Catholic High School in Thornhill. “We wanted the name to reflect what we do and to have the name make people happier when they hear it.”

While the school year does not allow Briana, Athena and their associates to pour their energies into Gifts that Smile as much as they could during the summer, the commitment level is poised to remain fervent for the months to come. After all, the need for these packages is increasing as the COVID-19 forecast worsens in Ontario. The Zhongs and their friends are currently devising Christmas-themed packages.

The sisters’ mother, Tracy Zhong, is proud and impressed with what her two daughters have created the past several months.

“I was so surprised when my two girls first came to me and told me what they planned to do because I knew a lot of my friends’ kids were either relaxing or playing games,” said Tracy.

“They inspire me a lot. In my mind they are my babies, but now I see them as independent women who are able to make a great impact in the community. They have grown up a lot by working on Gifts that Smile.”

Briana recognizes her own Catholic faith has been enriched by creating these care packages.

“I have realized that helping our neighbours like Jesus taught us has made me feel like a better person, and has given me the confidence to know I can make a difference as a high school student. I have learned so many skills and met so many new people. It is a truly rewarding experience,” she said.

For more, visit Gifts that Smile on GoFundMe.

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