Julia Tofan, Division 2, 12th grade

My father's foster child in Romania gave him her teddy bear when he left the country to immigrate to The United States of America, escaping communist rule. Through homeless NYC winters, severe starvation, loneliness, and grief, his teddy bear reminded him of generosity and love. In the face of struggle and pain, it brought safety and security. This is the story that I built the Connecticut chapter of Stuffed Animals for Emergencies (SAFE) on. The same problems my dad faced are still issues today, and I immersed myself in a class about social inequality, online learning resources, and the news to learn more, inspired to make a difference. More than 6,800 stuffed animals and many sewing events, collection drives, and awareness campaigns later, SAFE has grown and helped impoverished children in hospitals, Romanian orphanages, and foster homes.

It started with many phone calls with the national Stuffed Animals for Emergencies head, correspondence with local nonprofits in my area that could distribute stuffed animals to children in need, and an email address and Facebook page to reach donors and market the organization. I planned marketing techniques like talking to volunteer organizations and marketing online, made email templates to respond to donors with, and worked on posters and newspaper segments to outline SAFE's goals and spread the word. Soon, I had officially become the director of the CT Chapter of SAFE. Afternoon schedules quickly became filled with sewing, cleaning, counting, and organizing stuffed animals, all with the help of a kind sister and caring brother. In between the daily grind of running a nonprofit chapter, I've experienced cherished moments of human generosity and love. 

I have accepted Beanie Babies from a mother whose child had passed away to Cystic Fibrosis. She cried when she showed me his picture. She hoped his love would live on in these Beanie Babies and bring joy to someone and I assured her that stuffed animals carried happiness, telling her of the many children whose faces had lit up when they received a stuffed animal. Her and her child's love would be felt, and the children receiving the stuffed animals were the ones who needed love and safety in their lives the most. 

I have received stuffed animals from a donor who sent a letter apologizing that it took her so long to ship the donation. She had a disability that prevented her from working and had been saving for months to pay for shipping because she wanted to bring some joy to a child. I have seen a young child of age 5 finish unloading stuffed animals from his car, smile with great happiness, and exclaim, ""Wow, that felt so good."" I have seen universities, high schools, elementary schools, PTA groups, MOMS clubs, church organizations, and youth groups come together to make a difference, whether it's through collection drives, stuffed animal making events, or blanket sewing nights. I have seen the other side too, reading emails of appreciation detailing the security a stuffed animal brings in the chaos of police involvement situations, ambulance rides, and other emergency situations. 

Through these words and letters, I join something greater than myself. I become one with the world around me, giving and receiving at once. Community service has taught me to be a leader and have a vision, because no matter how many people told me my idea was too difficult or unfeasible, I persevered and believed in the power of a good idea and strong willed leader. I consider this the best experience of my life because it has allowed me to leave a legacy of caring, community, and giving in my hometown and gather people together to make a difference. It has taught me to be a leader, take action, and show initiative. It has nurtured me to become someone who is empowered and confident in continuing to get an education. 
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