Interview: Allyson Ahlstrom, 2012 HALO Award Winner
I spoke with Allyson Ahlstrom, founder of Threads for Teens, an organization that collects clothing and distributes it to disadvantaged girls. Watch this video to see how she reacted when she met Tyra Banks -- and read the interview below for Allyson's tips on getting more involved in your own community.
Can you talk a bit about how Threads for Teens got started?
I read a book called Generation Change by Zach Hunter. It's about different service projects that other teenagers have done. I've volunteered my whole life, and I wanted to do my own service project, but I kept thinking I was too young to do anything. Reading this book, I was like "Oh my gosh, a 12 year old started an organization to stop human trafficking. I'm two years older and I can definitely do something."
On January 17, 2010, I came up with the idea to do a clothing project, and it was Threads for Teens. In the next week, I sent out over 300 letters to different companies that I found online. Within the first couple hours of sending emails, I had my first donation.
That's awesome! It's interesting to me that at first, you thought you were too young -- until you read that book. But do you think being young also helped you get attention for the project?
Oh yeah, of course. In the letter I send out, the first sentence is "Hi, my name is Allyson Ahlstrom, and I'm 17 years old." So when I started, it said "I'm 14 years old." So, I'm definitely going to be a little bit sad when I turn 18!
Awww! I'm sure you'll still be amazing when you're 18. When you decided to do a service project, what drew you to fashion?
At the time, I was super into fashion design. I wanted to be a fashion designer really badly. I've always been into knitting and sewing and crocheting and whatever, so I was taking a lot of sewing classes and drawing classes. When I first read Generation Change, I thought "OK, what can you do?" and I immediately thought of fashion. Then I started thinking about foster kids, and how clothing is definitely a needed item... I think it was just the right timing.
I love that you're helping people find clothes that really work for them, and that build their self-esteem. Can you tell me one or two items that you think EVERY girl should own?
One would be a blazer, because a blazer can really dress an outfit up professionally. Like, as an example, I was at an event the other night, and I was wearing this really cute polka dot dress. It wasn't exactly appropriate for the event, but with the blazer, it dressed it up a bit and made the outfit look more professional as a whole. Also: definitely a black dress, which is so common, but it's so helpful when going to events. I go to a lot of events, and having a go-to thing that's cute and simple really helps out. I think a black dress is great. It's just easy.
What would you say has been your proudest moment with Threads for Teens?
One thing that really sticks out to me is from when the boutique first opened. A girl named Britney, who was really shy -- but nice and smiley -- came in. She was really excited with the clothes she got. What was really a testament to how well Threads for Teens works was, a year later, I heard from her social worker that they'd noticed a change in her after her shopping appointment. Britney had gotten the motivation to be a mechanic, and she's in trade school for that. That's one of the things that I like to think about... that it's a long-term project, not just short-term.
What has been the most challenging part of starting your own organization?
When I first started, I thought that getting donations of clothing would be hard, but I was completely wrong, because I got tons of clothing donations. But what I found out was really tough, and I was not anticipating this, was actually finding girls to shop at the boutique, you know... girls that would be eligible, that need the project, girls in foster care. That was tough at first. I had the opening date set for August 3, 2010, and I was scrambling at the end of July to round up a bunch of girls to come to the shop. It was tough, because I was explaining what I was doing to social workers, and I don't think they really understood it.
And they're probably so busy, too, that you're just adding another thing for them to think about.
Exactly, and it's so different. They're thinking, here's this 14-year-old trying to tell me to bring my kid to get some clothes... It was tough, but luckily I came in contact with a woman who's the head of an organization called CASA, which is Court-Appointed Special Advocates. She came to see the boutique before it started, and she just loved it and recommended it to people in her program, and thankfully ever since then I don't have to work as hard to find the girls. The social workers fill out a form on my website, and then they can make an appointment.
What advice would you give someone who has never done any volunteering, but wants to get involved in their community?
The first thing I would recommend is to talk to friends and family members, because there's gonna be someone that does some kind of volunteering. Let's say they talk to an aunt who's really into working with animals at animal shelters, and that's someone to talk to about volunteering in general. You can find more resources through networking, or just go straight to Google and look for organizations about things you're passionate about. One of the things I always say is that you need to find something you're passionate about -- or else you're not gonna want to go. What I recommend is to volunteer at several different places and figure out what you like, and what you don't like, until you find the perfect fit. That way you have fun when you're going, and that makes a difference. If you're just there because your mom made you or whatever, it's gonna show in the work you're doing. You need to be happy and give your full self. You need to be 100% present when you're volunteering. To go beyond volunteering and start a project, just go out there and do it and don't be afraid to ask others for help.
I love what you said about how you can just go Google it -- that's how I found the organization that I volunteer with! So, let's talk about the HALOs! How did you find out you'd won?
Well, Nickelodeon called me back in August saying they might want to interview me for a blog post about teenagers doing service work. So they got there, and there were like a million people! And then... [WATCH THE HALO AWARDS on Nov. 19th FOR DETAILS!!]
What was it like meeting Tyra Banks? Is there anything about her that surprised you?
I knew a lot about Tyra, but one thing that surprised me was just how much of a businesswoman she is. Behind the scenes, she is so powerful, and always wanting to learn more and do more. That's what I really admire about her... she does so much. She's not like, some puppet being told what to do. She's a decision-maker. I really admire her passion for the Lower Eastside Girls Club and for the Tyra Banks T-Zone.
What are your plans for Threads for Teens in the future?
Next summer, Threads for Teens is going on a 48-state tour. We're outfitting a semi truck to be a mobile boutique, and we're going to do the 48 continental states and D.C. About a thousand girls will receive a new outfit, and I'm really excited about that. We'd love it if people from around the country came out and visited the boutique while we're in their state. My plan for the far-off future is that I want to have brick-and-mortar store in all 50 states.
I would be so excited for that to happen, and I believe you can make it happen!
Oh me, too.
What is one thing you'd like to ask everyone who reads this interview to do?
Definitely check out the Threads for Teens Facebook page.
You're on Twitter, too, right (@threadsforteens)? Want to live-tweet the HALOs with us?
Yeah, that'll be cool. I just have to download a Twitter app for my phone.
Allyson, thanks so much for talking to me.
Thanks for taking the time to interview me!
For more about how Allyson Angstrom Helps And Leads Others (and to watch her be surprised by Nick Cannon and Tyra Banks!) don't miss the TeenNick HALO Awards on Monday, November 19th at 8pm et!