She Brings Joy When Disaster Strikes

UPDATED 06/02/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/02/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT

Ashlee Smith, 9
Reno, Nevada

When a house fire ravaged her family's home in September 2005, Ashlee Smith lost everything: toy horses, stuffed animals, books. Two years later, as her firefighter dad, Matt, battled a blaze near Lake Tahoe that leveled 250 homes, Ashlee thought of the children. "I want to help kids," she told mom Ericka, "and the most important thing to kids is their toys."

Since then, with the help of family, friends and local business-people, Ashlee has collected and handed out more than 10,000 donated toys to youngsters whose homes have been damaged or destroyed by fires, floods and other natural or man-made disasters in the Reno-Lake Tahoe area. She publicizes her cause on her web site (www.ashleestoycloset.org), stands outside stores, passes out flyers and goes on a local radio show to solicit toys. After making her case to local store managers, she has gotten donations from Toys "R" Us, Wal-Mart and Build-A-Bear Workshop. In January, while on vacation at Walt Disney World with her parents, brother Wyatt, 4, and sister Maddee, 3, Ashlee heard about floods in nearby Fernley; the day after she got back, she launched a 10-week toy drive, recruiting 30 grown-up volunteers and collecting 1,000 books and hundreds of toys for kids who had lost their prized possessions. Says Fernley Mayor Todd Cutler: "It was an incredible act of kindness."

Just last month Ashlee read a local newspaper story about the Schulze family of Gardnerville, who lost everything in an April 27 house fire. Meeting the Schulzes in town a week later, Ashlee, helped by her dad, hauled out boxes of presents: chapter books for 13-year-old Vicki, roller skates for Makayla, 8, and Power Ranger figures for 5-year-old Gahvin. "She warmed our hearts," says John Schulze, who has found temporary shelter for his family in a motel. On her school's honor roll and hoping to become a veterinarian, Ashlee has made mom Ericka proud: "At this age, she thinks of everybody else."

Know a hero? Send suggestions to HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM

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