Ashton Gerlach wasn’t looking forward to cleaning out her closet.
But a dreaded summer chore quickly turned into an outreach endeavor to bring hope and joy to children in need.
As Ashton began the daunting task, the 12-year-old Providence Day seventh-grader discovered an array of stuffed animals and books she’d collected since early childhood but hadn’t touched in years. Realizing she no longer needed the items, but not wanting to simply throw them away, Ashton searched for local organizations she could donate her collection to and stumbled upon Stuffed Animals for Emergencies, Inc.
“I didn’t want to throw them away because I knew someone else could use them,” Ashton said.
The charity, known as SAFE, has chapters established across the U.S. and collects new and gently used stuffed animals, books, blankets and children’s and baby clothing. SAFE works with organizations like fire departments, hospitals, mission centers and homeless shelters to distribute the items to children facing a crisis.
“These emergency organizations use the stuffed animals to ease the children’s nerves and calm their fears,” Jennifer Alloy, SAFE’s national director, said on the organization’s website, www.StuffedAnimalsForEmerge ncies.org.
SAFE stood out to Ashton because the organization collected not only new items, but gently used ones, as well. She also liked the fact that SAFE has a local chapter and many of the donations are given to local children.
“We were helping kids that were in our local community,” she said. “I thought it was cool because (these children) need to be comforted, and I wanted to help with that.”
But Ashton quickly realized she wasn’t the only person in the community with an excess of stuffed animals. She thought about what she could do to help more children, and decided to organize a stuffed animal and book drive through a monthly mission project at her church, Matthews United Methodist.
Throughout the month of July, Ashton placed bins in the church to collect donations of books and gently used stuffed animals. She spoke in front of the congregation on Sunday of the drive’s first week, explaining her project and encouraging church members to donate.
Ashton initially expected to receive only a small batch of stuffed animals. But when she checked the bins at the end of the first week, they were overflowing with donations.
“After that, we had either the same amount (of donations each week) as the first week, or more,” she said.
By the end of the drive, Ashton had collected a total of 560 stuffed animals and 390 books – something she said was “a simple cleaning task (that) turned into 950 blessings.”
When considering the number of donations she received, Ashton said she was “really surprised. When you think about how many people were able to (contribute) … that’s a lot of kids they can help.”
Ashton – who enjoys art, writing and running on her school’s cross country team – said she hopes her story can inspire others and show them anyone can make a difference in others’ lives, regardless of his or her age.
“Most people think that kids can’t do stuff like this,” she said. “I think it shows that you can, and I think it encouraged a lot of kids to do something (similar).”