12/4/2012 7:30:00 AM
|(Karla Wotruba/River News)|
Kindness for Kids volunteers Gordy and Sandy Edington sort and distribute donated toys destined for children in need. The Kindness for Kids toy drive goes officially through Dec. 15, with donation drop-off locations throughout Rhinelander. For a complete list of drop-off locations, visit kindnessforkids.net.
Kindness for Kids shares holiday spirit with children
Community gives toys, compassion to those who would go without
In a season of giving, the idea that any child in the community could go empty-handed on Christmas morning is a tiny tragedy, but a meaningful one that can be avoided.
Eighteen years ago, Bob Dionne and Gordy Edington decided they could, and would, do something about it. They founded Kindness for Kids, with the simple mission of providing "the spirit of the holiday season" for children in need in the community. The all-volunteer organization places toy collection boxes throughout the area, and redistributes the contributions to those who might otherwise go without.
"The whole thing started from a conversation between me and Gordy coming back from a military training exercise about how we knew there were kids in need in our community, and there wasn't an organization to satisfy that," said Dionne, co-founder of Kindness for Kids, "That's how the whole idea got put into motion."
Their first year, they started with 38 families, but over the years, they've quietly grown to provide gifts to almost 200 families and 500 kids. The organization has a small group of dedicated volunteers.
"There's seven volunteers that put it together, so it's a crazy Christmastime for us," he said. "It's what it's all about."
They work with Oneida County Social Services to identify families in need, and they also get referrals from churches and other organizations. Dionne pointed out that it isn't only Christmas gifts, but gifts for people of other faiths as well.
"We've also taken care of Jewish families, through Hanukkah. It doesn't matter to us," he said. "If they want gifts for their kids, whatever their affiliation is, that's fine, that's what we do."
There are many ways to contribute, but one of the most visible is the collection boxes distributed to businesses around the area. The boxes are wrapped and feature a "Kindness for Kids" poster. The organization officially collects through Dec. 15, although Dionne said the boxes will probably remain available until Dec. 16 or 17, for any last minute requests for help. (For a complete list of drop-off points, see www.kindnessforkids.net.)
"My wife and I have literally been providing gifts on Christmas Eve. If we get those calls, and there's a need, we just respond," he said.
Area businesses and organizations have taken up the cause as well. Taverns put out a jar or hold dances, Dionne said, and donate the money to Kindness for Kids. Other businesses, like the AmericInn and Stress Recess of Rhinelander, offer discounts to their customers who donate a toy. Last year, the RHS boys' hockey team and the Rhinelander Ice Association (RIA) collected enough items to benefit 50 to 60 children. In years past, donations have also come from the Tavern League and the Pink Hodags.
"It's great to know that hopefully enough people are reaching out so that there isn't a single kid in our community that gets up on the 25th without anything," Dionne said.
Some in the community have called Dionne, offering to adopt an entire family for Christmas. He said they give out the family's wish list on a form, while protecting their identity.
"What we do is cover their name, of course, so that's protected, but the kids ages, their genders, and their desires are given to them," he said, "They actually go out and shop 100 percent for that family."
Dionne said others donate what they can by depositing money directly into the Kindness for Kids account at Ripco Credit Union.
"They may say, 'I'd like to donate $10 to Kindness to Kids,' and they just put it in our account right at Ripco, which is wonderful," he said. "We'll get our deposit slip, and oh, my goodness, there's $20 here and $10 there, and that's just that outpouring of support, that generosity of the community that we have privilege of dispensing out to the kids in need."
The volunteers try to get at least one or two items on children's wish lists, whether by sorting through what has been donated, or going out and buying the item.
"We definitely try to fill at least one or two toys that each kid asks for, whether we get it donated or we have to purchase it," Dionne said. "We want that spirit of Christmas to remain alive in them, and that's why we do it."
He said that items for younger kids are typically what they receive through donations, but they don't want to leave behind older children.
"Usually our most needed items are those for boys and girls in that 10 to 15 range," he said. "Things like bat sets, and jewelry, age appropriate things for that age group. That's our most difficult." For the older kids, science-related toys, like microscopes, and art supplies are common requests.
Many of those requests aren't toys at all, but things that children need, such as warm clothing and outerwear.
"It's amazing how many people ask for boots and snowpants and mittens and things that kids really need for the winter," Dionne said.
For items that aren't donated, the group goes shopping, lists in hand.
"We do have parents who will ask for warm clothing, and we have their sizes and color choices, and so we actually shop for each individual child that way, when we have those kind of requests," he said. "We probably purchase anywhere from 2 to 3,000 dollars a year of toys and needed clothing items."
He emphasized that every penny donated to the group is spent on gifts for the children.
"One hundred (percent,)" Dionne said. "We've never so much as ordered a soda. I mean that, seriously."
While the original group is only seven people strong, they've had some help along the way. This year, Rhinelander High School Interact, the youth division of the Rhinelander Rotary, will be wrapping toys for the toy pick-up on Dec. 15. Also helping out this year is Leadership Academy Martial Arts from Woodruff.
"I'm a member of that martial arts school, and some of the families from there as part of their leadership program are going to be helping us, too. They're helping to fill orders, they'll be helping to sort toys and stuff bags," Dionne said.
Dionne said they are careful to protect the families' identities. They use a form, filled out by the family, to begin sorting the toys into large bags. Once the core items have been added to the bag, the only label on the bag is a number, and ages and genders of the children.
"If the Smith family has five kids, they sign their kids up, but then that family becomes, for example, number 5. So their bag has a number 5 on it, and all the gifts for their children go in that bag, so when they come to pick it up with their letter, all it has on it is a number 5. We give them their bag of toys, and they can go home and wrap it and do whatever they want to do with it," he explained.
The children, even the older ones, may never know that their gifts were donated. The family can wrap and label them as they choose.
"The kids may not even have any idea. Even the older kids have no idea where that stuff may have come from," he said.
Dionne said it's clear, even when a family is hesitant to ask for help, how much the gesture of kindness means to the families.
"Every year we get thank-you cards, and the hugs, and cookies, and things like that, and the tears, and we get that emotional connection with many of the families. I think it's difficult for many of them to even reach out and ask for help, but we go to great lengths to protect their identity and to make it as sensitive a situation as we can," he said. "I would like to think that it relieves a burden for them this time of year, and at least allows them and their children to get out of their current circumstances for at least a while."
He said Kindness for Kids is a reflection of the community's compassion. It is the community, working through them, that provides gifts for children during the holidays.
"We basically consider ourselves a vehicle or a means of taking the generosity of the community, consolidating it and then dispersing it out to who needs it. That's really what we consider ourselves, that's all we do," he said.
Dionne said that while a small toy or $10 may not seem like much, it means a great deal to a child who would otherwise go without.
"To us, a great big 'thank you' to every anonymous person in our community that drops a toy into one of our collection boxes, and we just want them to know that what a difference that makes. They may feel that it's insignificant, they may feel it's just a toy, but to a child in less than fortunate circumstances, it means a lot more than that," he said.
No matter what the circumstances of a family, it's the children the group is thinking about. To children who are affected in some way by financial difficulty, a small toy is a miracle in and of itself.
"We've always tried to stay focused on the kids, and going through this process kind of brings out the children enough. If you've got that 5, 6, or 8-year-old kid, they may not have a full understanding of why they're in the circumstances they're in, they just know it doesn't feel good, and we're hoping that the toy is not just a toy, but it's comfort for them, and security, and happiness," said Dionne.
In the eyes of a child, perhaps the magic of the season exists after all. "Maybe those that especially still believe on Christmas morning, it takes them out of that element for a while. Santa remembered us, and he brought us these gifts," Dionne said.
Karla Wotruba may be reached at email@example.com.
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