By Kim Walter
FRONT ROYAL -- Hundreds of Warren County children, many of them victims of trauma, may be impacted by the donating efforts of students at Randolph-Macon Academy.
For the past month, students have been asked to donate gently used or new stuffed animals to benefit children who have undergone a crisis or traumatic experience.
On Tuesday, 595 stuffed animals were bagged and loaded into a van to be distributed to the town and county law enforcement offices and the fire department.
Deputy Eddie Long, who also works with R-MA, said the student response was 10 times greater than what he "ever expected."
"All the local agencies knew they could benefit from this," he said, addressing R-MA students and staff Tuesday afternoon. "Every day we run into kids who are traumatized tremendously ... by fires, domestic abuse, automobile accidents ... it's every day. This mound of toys will make a lot of kids very happy."
Stephanie Portillo, the academy's interact-community service director, came up with the idea for the drive while visiting her sister. She said her niece was asked to bag up some toys that she hadn't used in a while so they could go to a local women and children's shelter.
Portillo realized the simple act of kindness could be turned into a school project.
"On my drive home, I remembered that a lot of localities give stuffed animals to children going through a traumatic event, and we had such a great relationship with local emergency responders anyway, it just made sense," she said.
To help encourage middle-school students, Portillo decided that the mentoring group able to raise the largest number of toys would get a piñata party.
All in all, the middle school students donated 518 of the 595 animals.
Portillo said the project was successful in many ways.
"I thought about the fact that money is tight, so I didn't want this community service project to cost parents anything," she said. "And I knew these kids probably had these animals sitting around, so why not give them to children who really need it?"
After the drive began, Portillo said a student approached her with his own memory of how important the stuffed animals are to a young child.
"He told me that he had been given a stuffed animal after some kind of event ... no specifics or anything ... but he said it meant a lot to him, and it was something he wouldn't ever forget," she said. "I think as the kids got into, they really realized how important something like this is, and it's so easy."
English teacher Bill Curl's mentoring group was the "winner," raising 187 stuffed animals.
Two of Curl's students, 13-year-old Joseph Silek and 14-year-old Thomas Minshew, were some of the biggest donors. Both boys said they weren't ashamed to bring their old stuffed animals to school.
"Some of the girls thought it was weird that we had so many [stuffed animals], but I didn't care," Thomas said. "They meant something to us when we were little, and I know they'll mean something special to other kids now."
Joseph agreed, and added that it was really easy to do.
"I had all these animals just sitting, waiting to be used," he said. "So, it helped me do some cleaning, and it made me think more about the kids that could use something nice."
Long thanked the students and staff who "took it upon themselves to make a big difference."
Portillo said she hopes to hold a similar drive every three or four years.
"I know the students are excited to get their party," she said. "But the real winners are the kids going through a hard time. I'm so proud that we came together and did something to help them."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org