Inspired by my sister-in-law’s desire to teach her sons to have empathy for others and to know how fortunate they are, I decided to work with her to expand that concept to a broader group of San Diegans. As a result, Every Child Counts SD had its first toy drive in 2016. The concept was simple, many children have gently (or never) used toys that accumulate and helping them show empathy for the struggles of other children can build a better society. We know that displaying empathy is a critical part of kindergarten readiness that sets children up for success long term.
In addition to helping those who give exercise their empathy muscles, we were able to bring cheer to hundreds of young people. Significant thanks is due to gracious friends in the San Diego Craft Beer Community: North Park Beer Co., Eppig Brewing, South Park Brewing Co, Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery, Mike Hess Brewing, Alesmith Brewing, Coronado Brewing Company, 32 North Brewing, and Council Brewing Company. All of these small businesses stepped forward to help gather toys and encourage employees to donate. A tremendous assist from another small business, Red Tree Realty through agent Caroline Abkar in Bay Park, augmented the drive with well over 200 toys. Here’s a message from Caroline…
The results of giving:
—Toys Distributed: More than 700 toys gathered in just over one month!
—Infants and Children from multiple organizations: Casa Familiar, Neighborhood House Association Black Infant Health Project, Low Rider Community of San Diego for homeless youth, Justice4SD33, National Conflict Resolution Center, Vista Hill and Urban Barber College
—Individual Families: 4 sets of grandparents on fixed incomes within the Encanto community were able to get toys for their grandchildren
—Direct Help: A young man and former foster youth trying to get on the right foot was able to get gifts for his young child
—Bike-friendly Christmas: Three young children received their first bike this year!
The organizer of one of the events that received toys from Every Child Counts SD had this to say (thanks Mayra!):
Stories of empathy
Part of this process was about parents teaching their children empathy – or in many cases reinforcing that learning. Here are several excerpts from parents who worked with their children to donate to Every Child Counts SD!
Reagan understands philanthropy and charity. We started with her first birthday–no gifts, raised funds for the Raptor Institute. Continued the spirit of giving over the years via her birthday with hundreds of books for children served by the United Way, each year. We volunteer and she is raised in a faith-based family.
I spoke with her about cleaning out her loft to help kids in need, and she said, “Okay, mama. I will see what I don’t play with. I will give toys to help my friends.” [“Friend” is used in place of child, because that’s how she’s taught to refer to her peers.]
Well our two guys are nowhere near as advanced on this topic as Reagan (very impressive, by the way). We actually struggle with this a bit. Kai and Quinn have a lot of stuff. And a lot of discarded stuff. My wife and I can just take it away and donate it ourselves, but we try to involve them as often as possible. Which at times is like pulling teeth. They are always willing to give a few things away and are usually great at sharing. But getting them to realize that they have a lot more than they need is still a challenge. What they have learned from this experience is that we should never throw things away if there are other people (or children) who would like or can use what we have. And this has been a great start. They are each going to fill a small box on Christmas Eve with a few more toys to donate and leave it by the Christmas tree with a note for Santa. Their hope is that Santa will take them and give to other children who might need or want them. If you’re accepting any late donations, let me know.
Every birthday and Christmas, we have involved our oldest, and now our youngest, in helping to choose those toys that go unused and under appreciated. We box them up and the boys help us hand the box to the Salvation Army donation truck. Of course we have the accompanying conversation about why it’s important to regularly take stock of what we have and how many children even in our own neighborhoods are not as fortunate and could greatly benefit from what goes unused in our house. We have the conversation, and there is understanding. We do discuss this on a regular basis, not just during holidays. And, I think, our boys have a generally healthy sense of gratitude given how young they are. But, with Every Child Counts, our goal was to make it more personal. For them not just to hand the box to a random donation truck driver, but to be a part of every step of the process. Given their ages, this was only for five minutes here and there as their uncle went through each step, but they were out there and helping. And for those five minutes, not thinking about themselves (albeit, that sometimes required a bit of prompting from us!). But even those five minutes, every so often, requires work on our part. Intention. And a consciousness. One that hopefully will grow throughout their childhood and will be less and less prompted by us, and more and more owned and initiated by them. We all have to start somewhere – baby steps, right? So even though my 5-yr-old, my oldest, still complains each time we start our donation process (he is just not wired for innate selflessness-it will have to be learned), by the time it comes to the actual giving, his heart and his ownership of compassion and gratitude increases. As his brother grows up watching that, his too will increase. And as their parents, we – hopefully – will have planted the seed.
Since Zavi was old enough to grab a toy from another child’s hand or say the word “mine” I’ve tried to teach non- attachment to material objects (I still say there is no such thing as “mine”). This was/is an exercise in self awareness as well (as parenting is) by not saying things like “that’s mamas phone” for example 😉 but rather saying that objects were being “used” by one person at this moment and will be “used” by you when it’s your turn etc. Or some objects are to be used by grown ups only. This worked for a while but all children experience the need for control and ownership so you wonder how much of it sticks, but you keep at it. For birthdays we do “no gifts necessary” so we really do not acquire too much. Now in all candor all of this goes out the window (or so it seems) somewhere around 4-5. One thing remains in our house which is respect to the environment and the concept of wasting resources…and most importantly the understanding that many children don’t even have their basic needs met (not just less fortunate but literally may not have good food and clean water). All of this is really about empathy and you don’t always know how much a 3 or 4 or 5 year old can internalize. When it came time to donate to “every child”, it came at an interesting moment when we had removed all toys from the house due to behavioral issues. So when we looked at all his toys amassed in the garage and I asked the question “which toys should we give to boys and girls that are not as fortunate as us” he said ” let’s give them all away”. Of course I was thinking “oh hell no we are not giving away that $40 millennium falcon”! (Which he gave away to his friend at school the next day anyway) But when I asked “are you sure and why” Zavi said it was the right thing to do. In the end we did not give away all our toys simply because they were not “gently” used and mostly we have legos and train tracks parts! A couple days later I circled back with him and asked if he would really be ok with giving away all his toys, he said no, but it was “still the right thing to do”. One last thing, I have a saying that I say frequently when we leave or lose things, which he now says too,” one persons loss is another persons treasure.”
As for my kids, at 11 and 14 they were able to make their own choices and basically clean out their rooms to donate. They are fortunate to have many aunts and uncles who spoil them with new toys. They are also fortunate to attend San Diego public schools and interact daily with the homeless student population and friends who have much less than our family. I think this daily exposure builds compassion and gratitude. We also discuss our charitable giving as a family and finally, I have to admit, they refer to themselves as “involuntary volunteers” for all the school functions I sign up our family to participate in. Happy Holidays all!
This was a gently used toy drive so that virtually every child and every family could participate in giving regardless of income. We all have something to share with others and this was one opportunity to make that a reality.
One major takeaway from this effort and bringing holiday cheer to approximately 500 families is that you never know how your acts of kindness can inspire others and lead to good things. My sister-in-law wanted to reinforce the lessons about empathy and good fortune that she and her husband had been raising their children with. It turned into something that helped many more children and fostered more empathy in our community. This ability to inspire and to help in the ways that are right for each individual is one important reminder. Many of us have the opportunity to drive positive change in a variety of ways, large and small. Every effort counts.