Touching hearts: Toy Share brings joy to local children
FRANKLIN LIVING– In the inaugural year of Toy Share, Bank Independent branches across the region collected 1,500 toys for children in need. Last year the toy donation program collected more than 3,300 and received more than $1,000 in cash donations.
“In 2018 we hope to exceed that number so more families will be reached and we will make a positive difference in the lives of the people we touch,” explained Nikki Randolph, community engagement specialist and coordinator of Toy Share.
Toy Share began, along with the bank’s other Share drives, as part of the Helping Hands initiative – which also includes Shelter Share, Food Share and School Share – which was established after the April 2011 tornadoes. “It was really an outcry from our employees. They wanted to help and didn’t know exactly how,” said Chris King, marketing officer for Bank Independent. “That Christmas we started collecting toys, and that kind of kicked it all off. It was so easy to get behind it and get all of our team members excited about it – and our customers as well. When you’ve found something people can throw themselves behind like that, you know you’ve found the right thing.”
Randolph said although the collection drive began among just Bank Independent employees, it did quickly grow to include donations from customers. “I was in HR at the time. All of our employees came together and – our branches are all very close knit – got our customers involved,” she said. “It was really incredible to see how many people were willing to respond. It was really neat to see.”
Randolph said last year’s participation was the largest response Bank Independent has seen in Toy Share’s seven-year history. “I think Christmas just resonates with people. The idea of a child waking up on Christmas morning and not having that experience to share with their family is something people struggle understanding,” she said. “Christmas just touches people’s hearts.”
In Franklin County, donation bins are available at all branch locations – in downtown Russellville, the branch on the highway and the two branches in Red Bay. As King pointed out, although Toy Share began as a response to the tornadoes, the need continues to be great.
“I think the need is universal. There’s been so much going on economically that a lot of families just don’t have the resources to provide the kind of Christmas they want to for their kids. You see the need of the organizations, whether it’s the departments of human resources or the different charitable organizations,” King said. “We live in such a generous community to begin with, but there’s something about this time of year. The people in our community really feel that spirit.”
Bank Independent partners with different organizations in each county for the distribution of donations. In Franklin County, donations go the Department of Human Resources and are used to help provide Christmas to foster children in foster families as well as at the DHR’s foster family Christmas party.
“We don’t really have a lot of financial resources that can help with making sure all of our 60-70 children have a great Christmas, so for our community to become involved and do that, it’s a good resource for us,” explained Stacey Carden, foster home licensing worker for the Franklin County DHR. “It’s really exciting for our foster kids’ annual Christmas party.”
Betsy Puckett, QA coordinator and resource development worker for the DHR, said some of the children DHR serves here in have very little belongings, “so this is just a way to help give them what we would want our own children to have. It is very helpful when Bank Independent has the drive like this because it involves the community.”
“We see some children who have never – they don’t know who Santa Claus is, they don’t what receiving gifts at Christmas is,” Puckett said. “They just smile; they light up. We’ve had children ask us, ‘This is for me?’ And it’s something as simple as a new coat – a brand new coat with tags on it.”
Toy Share accepts new, unwrapped, unopened toys for all ages. King said everything is appreciated. Bicycles are popular toys, and he encouraged donor to think about older children; foster children for example, can be 0-18 years old. “A lot of the older kids tend to be left out. We get a lot of stuffed animals and things for younger kids which is great, but there are older kids who aren’t getting gifts for Christmas as well,” King said.
Puckett also suggested educational toys – or anything someone would buy for their own child, grandchild, niece or nephew. “They just want to be like everybody else. If it’s something you would purchase for your own child, then it’s definitely something the children we work with would love to have,” Puckett said. “I would always encourage anyone to support the children in their own community. You never know if that’s the child sitting next to your child, niece or nephew in school … and for the children, knowing it’s coming from community members, that gives them more of a sense of community as well. We’ve had children – teens who have aged out of foster care – and they recognize the community helped them get on their feet. They are more likely to give back as well to their own community.”
PHOTOS BY CHRIS WEBB