ALEXANDRIA, Ky. -- Leah Wooten started building snowmen back in September.
No, the Alexandria teen didn't jet off to the snow-covered Andes Mountains from Greater Cincinnati's warmer-than-normal fall temperatures. Her snowmen were made right in her own backyard using upcycled wood shutters, paint and a little creativity.
Leah had to get an early start this year on her annual holiday fundraising project. Each year, she selects an elaborate, snowman-themed holiday decor project to complete and makes as many as she can. She then sells her handmade, Pinterest-worthy wares to raise money for worthy causes.
For the past couple of years, her proceeds have helped ensure that needy families in the Campbell County Schools district have holiday gifts to give their children. The need has increased, so Leah has increased her output this year.
"We have a lot of needy families in the district," explained Leah, a freshman at Campbell County High School. "It makes me sad to think there are kids who don't have what they need."
For families already struggling, purchasing gifts during the holidays is a real hardship, she said. The Family Resource and Youth Service Centers in her school district -- and others across Kentucky -- help out needy families each year to make sure their children have gifts to open.
In an effort to get as many gifts as possible into children's hands Christmas morning, Leah has spent much of her free time this fall making snowmen. Part of the challenge was finding enough used wooden shutters at an affordable price, she said. And her hard work paid off: She made and sold more than 50 of them last month.
"This year, we raised $1,000," she said. "We sold them pretty quickly."
That's double the amount she raised last year and about three times the amount she raised in 2014, Leah said. She started the project as a fourth-grader at Grant's Lick Elementary School.
Since then, Leah's fundraising project has become a family affair for the Wootens. Her dad helps with some of the painting and her mom delivers the snowmen to buyers and helps pick out the gifts to donate. Her older brother, Eli, a junior at Campbell County High School, even helps out a bit with some of the heavy lifting.
"Leah has such a giving heart," Melanie Wooten said of her daughter. "She's also a really hard worker and spends a lot of time on this."
The community has taken notice. Both Leah and her mom receive emails and Facebook messages beginning each spring with ideas for her snowman project for the year.
For Leah, it's a labor of love.
She serves on her school district's Youth Service Center Advisory Council, which gives her an inside look at the number of kids who need assistance with the most basic necessities. The group meets throughout the year and also discusses programming offered at both the middle and high school relating to issues like substance-abuse prevention, mental health education and health services.
Seeing the sheer number of students living in poverty and the hardships they face fuels her desire to help, she said.
With a very limited budget, donations to the centers -- like Leah's annual holiday donation -- are what help keep them afloat, according to Connie Pohlgeers, Campbell County Schools' director of school improvement.
"Leah reached out to us, which is great to see," said Pohlgeers, who oversees the centers at the district level. "There is always work to be done. It's around the clock, because the need is so great all year."
The Wooten family urges others to reach out to their neighborhood school district's Family Resource or Youth Service Center to help support local kids.
"Our family is really blessed, and there are so many things we take for granted," said Melanie Wooten. "When you see all the kids in need, even just right here in Campbell County, it breaks your heart."