William Cabaniss is a sixteen-year-old high school student who is class treasurer, on the track team, runs cross-country and is involved in volunteering clubs at his school. He likes to read books and play video games with his friends. And through his nonprofit, Cabaniss donated the funds to provide over half a million meals to families in need.
He founded the nonprofit in 2020, but the teen’s determination to fight hunger in America goes back to elementary school.
“As early as kindergarten and first grade, kids that would sit next to me would come to school hungry. They were dependent upon school breakfast, school lunches and backpack programs to survive and get through their days,” Cabaniss says. “Seeing that at such an early age really impacted me and made me want to help in any way that I could.”
He started donating his allowance to a local food pantry to get fresh fruit and when that wasn’t available, he would donate his favorite fruit, bananas. He also volunteers at his grandma’s soup kitchen in his free time.
Cabaniss describes these small actions as a kid “snowballing” into what Vanilla Feeds Tomorrow, his nonprofit, is today. When COVID started to impact people around the world and people lost their jobs, hundreds more people in the east Tennessee area became dependent on food banks.
“After watching a news clip of these overstressed food systems that people needed to survive on, I knew I wanted to help any way that I could,” says Cabaniss.
Finding Inspiration in Vanilla
Cabaniss was making vanilla brownies–his signature recipe–to eat later that night.
“As I added the vanilla extract, it hit me,” says Cabaniss. “I could make and sell this myself and donate the profits to help those in need.”
With the inspiration he needed, Cabaniss got to work. He started designing a website and planned how he was going to make vanilla extract. He determined what kind of bottles he would use, how he would ship them, and all the logistics involved.
“I knew I wanted to launch it as quickly as possible because there was a need that was growing by the day, but I also wanted to do it right so there wouldn’t have to be corrections in the future,” he says.
After a few months of preparation, Vanilla Feeds Tomorrow launched in May 2020. Cabaniss was fourteen when he founded the organization.
“I didn’t have any original goals or aspirations for Vanilla Feeds Tomorrow when I started, I just knew I wanted to make a difference,” he says. “We all have something we can give up to help those in need. For some people it’s time, money, or whatever it is. And we all have something that we’re passionate about. For some people that’s recycling, clean water or peace–for me that’s hunger–that’s what I want to try and stop. I just wanted to make the biggest difference that I could.”
Feeding a Community
Just two short years later the organization has accomplished incredible work. Cabaniss donates 100% of the profits from his vanilla sales to the Second Harvest Food Bank. To date, he has donated $170,405, which has provided 511,215 meals to east Tennessee residents in need.
“I never knew that this many people across the country would support some kid from east Tennessee who wanted to feed kids in his community,” he says. “I’m just grateful for all they’ve done.”
As founder and CEO, Cabaniss works exclusively with the Second Harvest Food Bank of east Tennessee as the pantry works with dozens of counties across the state.
“They can also stretch your donation further than almost anyone else local to me. Every dollar you donate is three meals they can provide,” explains Cabaniss. “It’s not only the best way to help people in a large area, but it’s the most efficient way to do it.”
Selling Madagascar Vanilla Extract
All the production of the vanilla extract is done by Cabaniss in his home. He imports the vanilla beans from Madagascar, cuts the beans and from there it takes about two weeks to make a batch of vanilla extract. Then, he bottles it, packages it and sends it out to the customers.
“It’s taken a long time to perfect the recipe but I’m very happy with where we’re at now,” he says.
Support from Family and Friends
With orders pouring in and his regular teenage life with school, clubs and more extracurriculars, Cabaniss has a busy schedule.
“Thankfully when I’m overwhelmed or stressed or there’s just more than I’m able to handle with a large surplus of orders, my parents, close friends and family all willingly step in to help me,” he says. “I’m so grateful for all they’ve done to support me and they’re always there when I need help.”
Give Back and Feel Good
Volunteering has many benefits including these feelings of fulfillment, mental and even physical benefits.
“The most satisfying part of all this is just that feeling you get inside yourself when you know you’ve made a difference. That’s why I encourage people to volunteer. If you have the time you should,” says Cabaniss. “It saves non-profits’ labor and it allows them to put their funds to other things that they might be able to do more good with.”
Advice to Other Students
When asked if he has advice for those who want to make an impact in their local community, Cabaniss recommends figuring out an issue you’re passionate about first, and then trying to do something about it.
“We all want to help but we may not know the best way to do that. An easy way to get involved is volunteering at a place local to you that supports that issue. You can start a movement on social media,” he says. “There’s countless ways you can do that but the biggest thing is just find what you’re passionate about and work on finding a way to actually make a difference in that area because you may be shocked at what you’re able to accomplish.”
Small actions to support others and to alleviate issues in your community are more impactful than you may realize.
“Everyone can make a difference,” says Cabaniss. “No matter how big or how small, every difference you make is still a difference at the end of the day.”
And Cabaniss’ future plans?
“Myself, I’m just gonna keep trying to make a difference,” the teen says.
We can’t wait to see what he does next!