Wilton High School senior Cole Stephenson launched a very successful fundraiser earlier this year, creating branded reusable shopping bags in time for the State of CT’s plastic bag tax implementation. He announced that all proceeds from the sales of his bags would benefit four local Wilton charities. Our initial article spread like wildfire and helped launch his project. Here, Cole shares what happened after that launch–most importantly fulfilling his promise of donating to the non-profits. In his own words…

Earlier this year, I started my own fundraising organization which I named Wise Wilton. As a senior at Wilton High School, I wanted to find a way to give back to the community that I grew up in. Working at the Village Market allowed me to see the amount of plastic and paper that was leaving the store. Wanting to make a difference for my town sparked my idea to create Wise Wilton reusable shopping bags.

The thought behind my initiative was two-fold:  to raise money for local charities by selling reusable bags that I designed and to help make a difference in our town by reducing the number of plastic and paper bags that are used. I chose a sturdy bag and designed it with a logo specific to Wilton. My hope was that if the bags were good looking and functional, people would use them.

When I received my shipment of 500 bags, they formed a tower that reached the ceiling. I remember asking myself, “How am I going to sell all of these?” As time went on, this stack of bags slowly dwindled down until there were no more left to sell.

The process of leading my own organization and selling all 500 of my bags taught me a tremendous amount about what I can achieve through hard work and purpose. Transforming an idea to an actual product and all of the pieces that took place in between to make that happen was one of the most gratifying parts of creating Wise Wilton. I designed the logo for the bags, developed and continuously updated my website, managed spreadsheets with all of my finances, opened bank/Venmo accounts, created posters to market the bags, made bag deliveries to people’s homes, and reached out to the great leaders of the four charities I selected. This experience allowed me to learn what it takes to run a small business and all of the components that are involved in making it successful.

One thing that surprised me during this process was the immediate outreach of support from our town. The day that the first GOOD Morning Wilton article launched in July, my Venmo exploded with bag orders, words of praise, and messages of encouragement. People loved the idea of the bags, their design and helping the four organizations (Ambler Farm, Animals in Distress, Wilton Food Pantry, and Wilton Athletic and Recreation Foundation) that are so meaningful to me and our town. This interest, enthusiasm, and generosity continued, which motivated me to achieve my goal of selling all 500 bags. Wise Wilton raised $3,895 through bag sales and generous donations, which resulted in each organization receiving $973.75. Without everyone’s kindness and support, none of this would have been possible and I thank everybody that was a part of making my initiative so successful.

While things seemed a bit daunting early on in the journey, I can honestly say that it became more and more rewarding as time went on. I have to admit that it’s pretty amazing to see the number of Wise Wilton bags that come in and out of the Village Market while I am working. In addition to the incredible support for my initiative, I also received a personal letter from State Senator Will Haskell applauding my initiative and leadership. The entire experience has been incredibly fulfilling on several fronts, including the amazing sense of community I experienced throughout this journey and the happy faces I witnessed while presenting checks to all of the organizations this week. Thank you again for your support and for helping to make a WISEr Wilton!

As for the future of Wise Wilton, right now my main focus is completing the college application process and finishing up with a strong first semester of my senior year. Thankfully, Wise Wilton was very timely with the bag tax implementation and ran its course. I have seen the demand for my reusable bags dramatically decline ever since the bag tax went into effect three months ago. My journey with Wise Wilton was a very rewarding and valuable learning experience for me. My younger brother, who has helped me out with my initiative along the way, has some ideas about how to expand Wise Wilton in the future.

To learn more about Wise Wilton and my journey, please visit my website.

Special Notes of Thanks to:

  • The Village Market for allowing me several dates to set up and sell bags outside of the store
  • To GOOD Morning Wilton for always keeping Wise Wilton in the news
  • The Wilton Bulletin for the great re-usable bag article which featured Wise Wilton
  • Wilton Go Green for inviting me to be a guest at their booth at the Farmer’s Market this summer to help promote my bag sales.