What inspired you to start your stuffed animal drive?
When I was in the National Junior Honor Society, we had to do an independent service drive for a project. I started thinking about what in my life had made a big impact on me. [What] came to my mind was when my family moved here from Arizona. I was four years old. I lost my favorite stuffed animal [at] the grocery store. And I was absolutely distraught. I couldn’t sleep. My neighbor, who was 13 or 14, gave me one of her stuffed dogs to replace mine, because she saw a little kid crying who was terrified by a new house, a new neighborhood, new people. That one kind gesture from a teenager had such a big impact on me. And so I started thinking about all the children who deal with actual trauma—sexual violence, domestic abuse, natural disasters, roadway accidents, sex trafficking—and how terrified they must be.
Tell me about the drive and how it has grown.
I started it in eighth grade when I was 13. I was originally collecting in my neighborhood in north Raleigh, then at my high school, Franklin Academy, and collected about 900 that first year. I collect the stuffed animals, wash them, and sort them based on which organization or contact I’m giving them to. Then I put them in bags and drive them to wherever they need to go, whether that be Virginia, different fire stations, police stations, or safe houses.
How did COVID-19 affect things?
I was afraid when COVID hit. Things were crazy for everyone, and donating and giving up … a comfort object in a time of uncertainty for children—I wouldn’t think that it was going to be high on people’s priority list. But people were actually more generous than in normal times. I’ve collected over 5,000 stuffed animals just this year, around half of what I’ve collected across the past five years.
Tell me a time when you realized this was worth it.
During COVID, I held a drive outside in my neighborhood. Two little kids came up to me, crying, holding stuffed animals, and their mom was behind them. And she [said], ‘Hey, my kids really want to donate stuffed animals, and I’ve been trying to explain to them what’s going on and why, but I think it would sound better coming from you.’ Obviously, I can’t talk to a six-year-old about sex trafficking or domestic violence. You can’t say that to a kid. I got on my knees, and I was explaining to this little boy that there are kids in the world that are suffering. They’re scared. And when you’re scared, buddy, what do you go for? He [said], ‘I go for my stuffed frog.’ And I [said], ‘There are kids in the world just like you, but when they get scared, they don’t have a stuffed frog or a stuffed puppy or a blankie.’ And he [said], ‘Oh, well, I want them to.’ And he handed over his stuffed animals.