BRADENTON -- After leaving church one evening in 2002, then 4-year-old Whitney Ackles passed by a celebration in front of Manatee County Courthouse.
She asked her father, Bill Ackles, what was going on. He told the girl it was a homeless outreach group serving food to people in need.
"I thought to myself, 'We have extra cookies, why can't they have them?' Now we make them every year," the now 15-year-old says. "It seemed like something that needed to be done. It was something that was important to me and my family."
For the past 11 years, Whitney has baked and given away hundreds of cookies made from scratch.
"I've grown up all my life hearing 'You help others. You give,' ever since I can
remember," she said.
Her mother, Jennifer Ackles, says her daughter is a true blessing who really loves to give.
"She's awesome and amazing. She does this all herself," Ackles said.
She's been dubbed the "Cookie girl" by minister Tony Medina and his wife, Vivian Medina, who have organized the Christmas Eve outreach event for 13 years. Each year they serve up to 125 people with the help of volunteers and donors such as Whitney.
"That girl is absolutely amazing," Vivian Medina said.
"She made an impression you'll never forget," said Tony Medina. "I saw this beautiful young child dressed up. It was just her and she brought the cookies to our table."
He and his wife look forward to seeing Whitney each year.
"I would tell my wife to watch out for the little girl. She's coming with the cookies," he said. "And she didn't ask to be recognized."
Medina sets up a celebratory event for the homeless and breaks bread with them. And each year, people look forward to Whitney's homemade cookies.
"We just have a party with the homeless and we do what we can. It's a very tough day for people on the streets," Medina said.
For years, Medina and Whitney only greeted each other as she dropped off her sweet donation. He said they didn't learn each other's names until a few years ago.
"I made it my business not to address her. I let her give her donation," he said. "I wanted to respect her and her gift. I think what she does is very special."
What started as an act of giving has turned into a creative outlet for the teenager. Whitney said she enjoys baking and testing out recipes she finds online. She makes all her cookies from scratch, including peanut butter, chocolate chip and sugar cookies.
"We've always done M&M and peanut butter, we always did sugar," she said. "Over the years I've grabbed extra stuff and make what I can."
She also makes Rice Krispies treats because she can make a lot so everyone can get at least one.
Each year she does about five different flavors. It takes the teen days to bake hundreds of cookies for delivery Christmas Eve.
"It used to be me and my grandma cooking. Now it's just me," Whitney said. "I'll start this year on the 20th and probably finish on Christmas Eve."
Whitney bakes additional cookies to give away as gifts in neatly packaged bags. The sophomore juggles baking with attending Manatee High School, participating in the swim team, senior orchestra, interning at Rep. Vern Buchanan's office and working part-time after school.
"I stay up really late and I wake up really early. I don't stop all day," said Whitney.
Her giving comes as a personal mission to show God's love.
"It's to help people get closer to our God. It's to show people that this is the time that you share with other people. It's the season to give," Whitney said.
Janey Tate, city of Bradenton and Palmetto reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. You can follow her on Twitter at Janey_Tate.