OCEAN SPRINGS -- For his ninth birthday, Oak Park Elementary student Zach Burgess thought about the gift he could give, not the presents he could receive.
Zach walked into the Salvation Army's Kroc Center in Biloxi a couple of weeks ago with $270 in cash and checks he'd collected for the homeless. Family and friends contributed the money in lieu of gifts for a birthday party his mom, Jennifer Burgess, threw at their home in Ocean Springs.
"Me and my mom have been feeling really bad about the homeless," said Zach, whose birthday is Feb. 22. "I felt really proud of myself, what I did. It felt really good."
This is Zach's second year to collect and donate birthday money for a worthy cause. Last year, he raised $550 for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis because he knew a little boy with cancer. He got the idea for an altruistic birthday from a friend who requested donations instead of gifts.
His mom said they chose the Salvation Army for the donations because the organization spends its money wisely and does good work in the community. The Salvation Army also runs the only homeless shelter on the Coast -- Red Shield Lodge in Pascagoula, which houses 40. The shelter for men, women and children is full every night, Salvation Army Lt. Brian Hicks said.
"At first, your heart kind of breaks just to see youth wanting to reach out with money they could have gotten presents with for their birthday," Hicks said. "In turn, he just wanted to help the homeless. If we had more people like that we would be able to do more to help the homeless population."
Zach has been aware of the homeless problem since he was a toddler. His parents lived in New Orleans at the time and his mom saw homeless people downtown, where she worked. After she had a child, she had a new perspective on the homeless.
"It just hit me like a ton of bricks," she said. "That's somebody's child right there."
One day, she saw an elderly man struggling to breathe as he trudged along the street. She decided she needed to do something. So she started filling tote bags with toiletries and keeping them in her car. She handed them out to the homeless. Zach saw what his mom was doing and has emulated her.
He has a knack for spotting homeless people. He watched a man from behind a bush not long ago when he and his mom were going to lunch in downtown Ocean Springs. Jennifer Burgess had not seen the man.
Zach said he knew the man was homeless because he was dressed in layers and had coins in a cup. Zach asked his mom for his wallet and gave the man some money.
"I think it's kind of sad," he said, "that all these thousands and thousands of people have lost their homes."
Zach's father, Robbie Burgess, has been supportive. He wrote a check for the cause, as did other relatives and family friends.
Zach invited classmates to a second party that was a blast -- a sleepover and trip to the monster truck show in Biloxi with four friends. He got some presents, too.
"He still gets gifts," his mom said, "We don't want to canonize him just yet. He likes presents."