For several years, the community has had the presence and benefit of a little-known national organization called SAFE (Stuffed Animals for Emergencies).
The Cleveland chapter is sponsored by The Santa Project, a local nonprofit organization, partnering with United Way of Bradley County to bring stuffed animals and toys to children in need.
The Santa Project collects new and gently used stuffed animals all year and supplies them to organizations that use them to provide comfort or even joy during a child’s time of need.
People are always generous, according to Joyce Vanderpool, coordinator of the program through The Santa Project.
Stuffed animals come in on a regular basis throughout the year, are received and stored at United Way, and then are distributed to groups requesting them. Sometimes donations come from out of state, but shipping can be expensive.
“We encourage people from outside our area to contact their local sheriff, police or other emergency departments as well as counselors of children, foster-care groups, and other child-care agencies,” Vanderpool explained. “When they can’t find them a loving home in their area, they sometimes ship them to us.”
So why is the local nonprofit so excited about this particular gift?
“A single donation of more than 400 stuffed animals, shipped all the way from Lexington, Mass., is pretty special,” she said. “The reason behind it is even more special.”
This very large donation came from a 13-year-old named Aria Harris, and was a result of her bat mitzvah year of service.
You see, Aria is Jewish. As her service project during her year of preparation for her bat mitzvah, she had collected hundreds of new and gently used stuffed animals to donate to an organization in Colorado, only to have it close down its program shortly after her first shipment. Her search for a new recipient turned up SAFE and The Santa Project.
For those who might not know about the tradition of bat mitzvah, it is the ceremonial religious initiation when a 13-year-old girl (bat mitzvah) or boy (bar mitzvah) are considered to be an adult.
The young people prepare to assume the moral and ethical responsibilities of their decisions and actions, and they reflect on their spiritual self and their relationship to God.
The Jewish tradition requires a year of preparation including curriculum, service projects, and other acts. The end of the preparation time culminates in a religious ceremony of bat mitzvah (or bar mitzvah) followed by a party of the same name.
Their selected mitzvah project is something special to them, something about which they feel truly passionate. They are encouraged to select a project that can help repair the world or make a major impact on community.
Aria’s parents, Gordon and Sion Harris, as well as her 16-year-old brother Elan, are very proud of her accomplishments and her dedication to completing this service project in spite of some seemingly large obstacles. But according to her mother, Aria is pleased to have her animals coming to Bradley County and hopes the children here get great pleasure from her gift.
The animals have already been delivered to the Boys & Girls Club, the 3 Kings Feast at St. Therese Catholic Church, and The Refuge Community, all of which have Christmas programs to assure that children and their families have a joyous Christmas.
“This is a beautiful example of diversity in our great country,” Vanderpool said. “Aria and her family worship the same God as Christians and they express their faith in generous acts of kindness and caring, just as the residents of Cleveland and Bradley County.”
Vanderpool added, “Thank you, Aria, for reminding us that our community is greater than the 332 square miles in which we reside. And thank you from the parents who will be able to give their child a gift they might not otherwise have been able to give.”
She continued, “We are sure the children who will receive your warm, fuzzy gifts would thank you in person if they could. You have been a true blessing to all of us.”
To learn more about SAFE and the other programs of The Santa Project, visit www.creativestoryproject.com.
And if you would like to give a stuffed animal, bring it to Santa at Bradley Square Mall or drop it off at United Way of Bradley County, 85 Ocoee St.