I am the Development Director at Sacred Heart Center and while I don’t directly work within the programs, I have started an ‘unoffical’ program of collecting books and stuffed animals to give to children to take home with them.
One of my first experiences of learning what is was like to be a child in our low income community was during our summer camp program a few years back . Our bus had broken down and we decided to go pick up the children using our cars (which looking back was probably not a good idea legally, but hey, we wanted to get the kids to come to camp) I remember going into the community and knocking on a door to pick up one of the children enrolled. A little girl, around 8 or 9 opened the door. Behind her were 6 more children, each one younger than the last. Looking around the apartment, I noticed that it was basically empty. No furniture. no belongings, no toys. I felt shocked and also a bit shamed that I was so ignorant of the realities of poverty that the children in our community faced. At the time I wasn’t sure how I could help other than being at the center and helping support the parents.
Months later out of the blue, Collegiate School called us. They were cleaning out their library.. did we want their books? I thought about my own experiences with books and much I loved to read as a child. How my parents and brought me to the library regularly and pointed out books for me read – my mother showing Beverly Cleary books, and later, my father, pointing out Issac Assimov. No matter what was going on in my life, I could always escape into books. (and I still do!) It occurred to me that this was a great opportunity for me to share this love of reading and learning with the children that came into the center with their parents who were registering for classes, taking workshops, or visiting the Mexican Consulate. About the same time my next door neighbor gave me 5 large garbage bags full of stuffed animals… wouldn’t it be great if I could give kids a stuffed animal to play with while they waited for their parents to finish whatever they were doing at the center, to take home with them, especially knowing that some of them had none of their own ?
At first I gave out and collected books and stuffed animals for special events, like consulate visits. The children were so happy to have a stuffed animal or book to take home with them that I felt that this was something I should have on hand at all times for the kids. Through various social media groups on facebook and next door, I started asking for donations of books and stuffed animals from friends, neighbors, donors (and strangers!). The response has been amazing! Another non profit in the area that collects household donations started saving the stuffed animals that they received for us. People were leaving bags on my doorstep at home and I was picking up bags from other peoples homes. Other people were coming to the center to drop off items. Today, we have a full bookshelf as well as bin in the hallway full of stuffed animals and small toys. When I see a child come into the center I always let them know that we have stuffed animals and books to take home for free.(the rest of the staff call me ‘the Tia’ because I don’t have kids of my own, but they know I will chase a kid down and try to give them a book or stuffed animal) The initial responses vary.. some children run straight to the ‘peluches’ bin and others to the books. Some take a little bit of coaxing, and I go thru the animals with them – do you like bears? Cats? Dogs? And then there is this moment that they see the one they want, their faces light up and the clutch the stuffed animal to their chest, beaming, as they go to show their parents what they have and play with the animal while their parent(s) finish their business at the Center or the Church office. Other children like the books and I try to do the same thing.. do you like dogs? Animals? And match them up with a book they might like – one older kid noticed that we had some national geographic magazines – I had put them out there remembering how I flipped though my dad’s and looked at the pictures and learned about the worlds I didn’t know even existed. (This kid actually asked me if we had some Time magazines, and I was sad to tell him that we didn’t, but he did take some of the national geographics). Another child, about 4 years old, after I gave him a book and stuffed dog, was so happy to have them that he wanted to give me something too. He took 12 cents out of his pocket and gave it to me. It was hard not to cry in front of him. Recently we hosted a busload of migrant farmworkers for lunch and brought out all our stuffed animals to share. Even the teenagers were happy to haves soft friend to hug.
Thanks to the generosity of others, I have been able to share my love of books and hopefully of learning with children that may not have otherwise had the opportunity to own a book of their own. Many of our families are mixed status, meaning that in today’s political climate, they live in a heightened sense of fear of loved ones being detained or deported. Many of the children experience isolation at schools and sense of being between cultures. I hope that the stuffed animals and toys that we give out are able to give comfort to children of all ages in times of uncertainty and loneliness, as they do for me now, even as an adult.
I think that most people can connect with the love of reading and the comfort of a stuffed animal and because of this ‘program’ I have been able to connect more people with the center and our mission through my collection efforts, which in turn has led to the bonus of additional community awareness and support, either financially or through volunteerism, which is always welcome. But at the end of the day, knowing that I might have made a difference for one child is what keeps me going and what I remember when I get discouraged, or burnt out on the challenges of our organization to meet the needs of so many, especially when some of our community is at risk because of things we can not control (like immigration policy and racism). And sometimes, when the animals go in the bin, I get a little hug out of them first to keep me going as well.