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Former Ward Melville students' nonprofit still helping homeless four years later

Mission: Toothbrush was created by Ward Melville High School students to collect supplies such as toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss to be given to people in homeless shelters and soup kitchens. On Sept. 8, students collected donations outside the Stop & Shop in East Setauket. (Credit: James Carbone)

When a couple of teenagers started an organization in 2015 to collect toiletries for those in need, they had no experience in dental or nonprofit sectors — or even a driver’s license.

Mission: Toothbrush since has organized drives and donated personal care products worth more than $65,000 to local soup kitchens and homeless shelters.

The idea to start the organization came one morning when Joshua Farahzad, now 20, brushed his teeth. He thought about the value of ordinary items like the toothbrush he held in his hand.

“There’s nothing extraordinary about it,” Farahzad said in a recent phone interview. “But [a] toothbrush is something that has a lot of health impact. [Poor oral hygiene] leads to all sorts of things.”

Farahzad then went to talk to his friend Hugh Ferguson at Ward Melville High School, where they were juniors at the time. “We were just kinda bored and not stimulated by classes,” Farahzad said. “We were itching to do something.”

So they began calling a few local soup kitchens.

They learned that the soup kitchens “would have plenty of food to last sometimes for months,” Ferguson, 20, recalled in a recent phone interview. “But pretty much they would run out of toiletries, toothbrushes, toothpaste and diapers. It was like a legitimate problem that was not being focused on.”

That’s when the two teenagers found their niche.

“We learned so much and gained a lot of confidence . . . by standing outside the stores and having to approach people and approaching them with confidence and a smile,” Farahzad said. “It also made me realize how fragile these ideas are. If you don’t set up drives and stand outside the stores, no one else will do it.”

The two have gone on to college, during which they tried to launch two rockets into space. The leadership torch has been passed down to the fourth generation. Hundreds of students, often chauffeured by their parents, have volunteered in the drives.

“It taught me a lot of new things, like how to file taxes, just becoming more and more of an adult,” said Katherine Liu, 17, one of the nonprofit’s current presidents and a student at Ward Melville, which is in the Three Village Central School District.

On a recent sunny Sunday in September, Eric Wang, 15, and David Wu, 13, of Setauket were among about two dozen teenagers who were carrying on the mission by collecting donations — one drive at a time.

“The first time was probably the worst because you were nervous,” Wu said of his experience approaching strangers outside a Stop & Shop in East Setauket.

The first person he approached simply walked away.

“You need to accept rejection sometimes,” said his friend Wang, who had told himself to “just smile and say these words” before approaching someone. “You start to get more used to it.”

Over three hours, the group collected $450 worth of toiletries, including a few items donated by Phyllis Stone, 69, of Mount Sinai.

“They are not asking for money, just items. They are giving their time, too,” Stone said. “It’s something small. But it can make a big difference in someone’s life. Everybody needs a little bit of help.”

Since 2015, the nonprofit has collected more than $65,000 worth of personal care items, including:

  • 9,000 toothbrushes
  • 13,000 ounces of toothpaste
  • 120,000 milliliters of mouthwash
  • 50,000 yards of dental floss
  • Diapers, wipes, menstrual and shaving products

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