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February 9, 2022 2:45 PM EST

Jayden Perez spent the weeks leading up to Black Friday asking anyone at the park or on the streets in his hometown of Patterson, N.J., if they’d heard of Giving Tuesday.

“I’m not afraid to approach strangers,” says Perez, who is a kid ambassador for Giving Tuesday, an online campaign created to encourage people to donate after the weekend known for holiday spending. “It was kind of as a joke, but I also just to get the word out.”

That kind of courage is necessary for the work that Perez is doing, which often relies on donations he receives from the community around him. He runs his own non-profit called From the Bottom of My Heart, which collects donations to give to people in need.

Throughout Perez’s childhood, volunteering has been a family activity. “Anything they can do to help others, they do it,” he says of his parents and older sister. “I was raised by that.” In the fall of 2017, when he was 8, he saw his mom, Ana Rosado, trying to aid family members in Puerto Rico after the catastrophic damage caused by Hurricane Maria. He wanted to help out too, and decided to do a toy drive for kids there. “Originally, I just wanted to give my Christmas presents,” he says, “but I realized it wouldn’t be enough.”

He reached out to family and friends, expecting to get 100 toys. But donations soon piled in; by the end of the drive, he had collected over 1,000. “My garage looked like a Toys ‘R’ Us,” says Perez. “That was a big success right there.”

With more toys than he could donate to charity, he traveled to Puerto Rico to distribute them that December. “Seeing the joy on kids’ faces made me want to keep doing it forever,” says Perez. During the trip, he was struck by the abandoned animals he saw along the streets. An animal lover with two dogs at home, he decided on his next mission, and began organizing again to collect food for the animals there.

As his work began to attract the attention of local media and companies started approaching him about making larger donations, Perez decided to set up a non-profit to keep the giving going. “I ended my first video with ‘Could you donate from the bottom of your heart?’ and I just kept saying it,” he says of his non-profit’s name.

Perez isn’t motivated by any one cause, instead choosing to direct his efforts wherever help is needed. He doesn’t have a single project that he’s most proud of but says that it’s the act of giving that gives him his purpose, regardless of the scale. “Just spreading kindness and seeing the joy and smiles on everyone’s faces after I give my donations [has been my favorite.]”

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A community of giving has sprouted up around him in Patterson—friends and family members are the first to donate to his projects, his school shares his missions on the morning announcements, and the town’s mayor, André Sayegh, often joins Perez to help pack school supplies in backpacks or donate to his toy drives.

His ideas for the next mission often come while completing the current one. “Having connections with my community has been really helpful,” says Perez. “People always know what’s happening and who needs help.”

At the start of the pandemic, he overheard classmates talking about how rapidly sanitizers were selling out, so his mom helped him order over 1,000 bottles to distribute to the local fire department, school district, police department, and library. In 2021, his missions included a toy drive, donating school supplies, and hats and gloves in preparation for the winter.

After local press coverage of his efforts and his own outreach on Instagram, people around the country have started contacting Perez for help. Last fall, a preschool in Missouri asked for his help getting educational toys. When a mother in Arizona messaged him to share that her son was being bullied, Perez reached out to the boy’s principal to get their help.

After four years of good deeds, he shows no sign of slowing down. Perez hopes that his work can inspire others to give back in their own communities. “If we all come together,” he says, “we could make a difference in this world and make it such a better place.”

Read about more of the 2021 TIME Kid of the Year finalists here.

Watch the Kid of the Year broadcast special, hosted by Trevor Noah, on Nickelodeon on Wednesday, Feb. 9, at 7:30pm/6:30pm CT to find out which finalist will be named TIME Kid of the Year

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Simmone Shah at simmone.shah@time.com.

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