A Former Welfare Kid On Why Donating Toys Matters

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I’m a big supporter and believer in the mission of Toys for Tots and other like minded toy drives. Less fortunate kids need help and not just when it comes to making sure they’re fed or have winter coats, but also their spirits need to be raised too. A kid shouldn’t have to go through life surrounded by constant misery.

I was super excited when a Twitter follower mentioned that she had been a kid that recieved donated toys. I asked her to write a little bit about her circumstances and I asked her a bit about her thoughts on charity.

Being a Welfare Kid – By Jesse Nicole

jessenicoleIt’s 1987 and my sister and I are at the grocery store with my dad, who is fumbling with stacks of paper covered in stamps as the irritated cashier rolls her eyes. Some of our friends are there, but their parents don’t stop to say hello… I wonder why? We pile into the pea soup green Monte Carlo, carefully avoiding the ceiling liner, which is sagging 12 inches from where it’s supposed to be. Dad attempts to start the car for a couple minutes before exiting to look under the hood. It looks like we’ll be walking home again.

We aren’t dressed like other the kids in school. Usually our clothes are a few years old, worn, and have been handed down from our cousins. GOD, I wish I had female cousins. When we were young we didn’t really mind because the other children didn’t point it out… but their parents noticed, and made sure to comment on it.

I helped my father heat the house using only chopped firewood. A dump truck would unload a huge pile of wood at the top of the driveway and it was my job to throw it down the hill and stack it along the wall in the basement. The basement floor was loose, dry dirt so there was always a huge cloud of dust as I went back and forth from outside, retrieving pieces of wood and stacking them in a nice, neat pile.

Meal time wasn’t like other families. We rarely had meat, and when we did it was the anonymous bologna, or hotdogs mixed with something. Many nights my sister and I would split a can of condensed soup for dinner while my dad worked on the house. Now that I think of it, he skipped a lot of meals so we could eat.

My dad worked as an electrician at a big company in the city. He had to get up very early and didn’t get home until it was dark. When we were really young we had a number of disaster sitters, because that’s what he could afford. I remember one quite literally lived in a shack filled with filth and feral cats, and another was obsessed with our relationship with God. There were a lot until I was deemed old enough to be the latch key caretaker before and after school. I think I was 10 and my sister was 7…

There was so much that made my sister and me different from the rest of the kids in school. Our parents were divorced, our brother died in a horrible accident, we weren’t allowed to see our mother and we didn’t know why… but the thing that made it more clear than anything else was the poverty. Holidays were never like other kids described. I distinctly recall easter eggs filled with pennies, which we had to add to the “Disney fund” jar when all was said and done, and trick-or-treating at home in our normal clothes because going out wasn’t an option. We didn’t mind, but we did notice. Especially when school was back in session and other kids shared their own stories.

But Christmas was different.

There are services for families like ours all over America. Some are through church groups, some through community efforts and once in a while it’s a kind benefactor who takes interest for whatever reason. We always had gifts under the tree on Christmas, and we always had a stocking. Nothing is more normalizing to a child living below the poverty line than receiving the same toy her best friend received from Santa, and being able to play together like equals. It was the one time of year that we weren’t the poor kids, or the kids whose parents were divorced, or whose mother was an addict, or who lost their brother to drowning.

We were just… kids on Christmas.

Giving a child in need the same kind of gift you would give to your own child makes more of a difference in his or her world than you will ever know. You’re allowing that child to feel like every other kid, even if just for that moment.

A Few Questions with Jesse

I decided to shoot Jesse a few questions and here’s our exchange:

Vincent: Do you know specifically which toy drives helped you out?

Jesse: Unfortunately I can’t say with 100% certainty. I DO know that they were arranged at the Fire Department in Chenango Forks, NY. Also I believe the Episcopal Church in Chenango Bridge, NY helped, but again, it was a LONG time ago.

Vincent: When you were a kid, did you know where the toys came from? (i.e. not Santa or your dad)

Jesse: As far as we knew the toys were from “Santa” until we were good and jaded, then they were from (mom or dad)

Vincent: How did the people distributing the toys to you now what you wanted for Christmas?

Jesse: Unfortunately there was no way of knowing what kids want unless they asked the families. That’s not usually an option with the bigger charitable giving organizations. Sometimes someone from the church would ask if they could help, and they might have an idea of the sort of gift we would like.

Vincent: What kinds of toys should people buy for toy drives? Is it more important to give in quantity or quality?

Jesse: Buy the sort of toy YOU would like to receive, or the sort of toy you would purchase for your child/ grandchild. These kids daydreams are just as extraordinary as a child from a family of means… Quality really is so much more important than quantity. If you give a child a poorly made toy it will break. Kids aren’t necessarily delicate with their things, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. They’re SUPPOSED to play with toys! They’re supposed to love them, and enjoy them!

Vincent: So in your personal experience, poverty isn’t just a state of not having enough to eat, having adequate shelter, and food, but also an incredible mental strain?

Jesse: Poverty creates incredible mental strain for children, even when you do your best to keep it a secret. Kids have their own social hierarchy, and that’s our fault as parents. We groom them to desire things that are pretty, new, clean, electronic, expensive, etc. because that’s what we want for ourselves. So yes, other kids take notice when you don’t have new clothing at the beginning of the school year, or when your hygiene is sub-par, or when your lunch is in a plastic grocery bag instead of a nice lunch box. Kids are as superficial as we raise them to be. They parrot our own behavior in that respect. And they don’t mind pointing out another child’s shortcomings. Today we call it bullying, but it’s always existed.

Vincent: Do you think your experience you had with getting gifts for Christmas made a difference in the successes you’ve had in life?

Jesse: I would say that if nothing else I’ve come to love being part of a community and helping in any way possible. I’m involved in multiple charitable efforts and have been for years. I’m also teaching my children to become involved in a similar way. Although they’ll never know the poverty I have, they DO know what it means to reuse, to buy second hand, and to give back. They know that there are things in this universe more important than video games or sparkly boots that light up when you walk. But they also know what it means to appreciate those things when they receive them.

Vincent: What kinds of charities do you give to?

Jesse: I’ve donated my professional services to the Humane Society, to families who experience loss, I give blood to the Red Cross, local gift drives (ones where the child asks for a specific gift), I’m helping immigrants learn English and shipping in at a church bake sale (even though I identify as agnostic). I also started my own charitable giving effort for the elderly population of a nursing home in New Hampshire. Here’s the link. I started this two years ago, and it was such a success that despite my moving to Canada the local population asked me to do it again!

Your Turn

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Kid’s helping kids!

Well now you know what kind of impact it can have on a person’s life, give to a toy drive this holiday season before it’s too late. I want to thank Jesse for taking the time and writing/talking to me and I hope sharing her story really helps make a difference.

If you want to help look for your local toy drive. The most common is Toys for Tots and many Toys R Us locations have donation bins. If you absolutely can’t find a bin or they don’t have them in your area, you can donate cash on their website.

  • Chris Piers

    What an interesting story. Jesse is a great writer! I volunteer at homeless shelters and do a lot of homeless outreach but I have never encountered stories from children that benefit from Christmas charities. I already donated a bunch of new clothes to one for Christmas but after hearing Jesse’s story, I’m heading to the toy store to get a high-end action figure or two as well.

  • Hurrah!

    Yeah, I usually try to give toys I want myself (that are also geared toward kids). I think it’s a lot more meaningful than grabbing some cheapo garbage off a shelf.

    That’s not to say that you can’t find good deals on good toys. Just some people are cheap and think that whatever they give is good enough. “Beggers can’t be choosers” and all that.

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