Lisa Stewart wants to accomplish even more than seeing thousands of poor children around the world receive their first stuffed animal.
Through the charity she founded, Gifts for the Heart International, the 35-year-old mother of four wants American children to learn how fortunate they are and how much they can help other children. She and her husband, Josh Stewart, live in Bellingham with their children.
Question: What's been the local response to your requests for stuffed animals?
Answer: It has been absolutely wonderful. After I spoke to the students at Bellingham Christian School, they donated over 300 stuffed animals when they decided to do a drive. I talk about poverty, my organization, and what our children can do to help children in need.
Earlier, after I spoke at Northern Heights Elementary School, we were overwhelmed with more than 400 stuffed animals.
Q: So you ask kids to donate one of their stuffed animals to children in a developing country?
A: Yes, although adults also donate. I've spoken to hundreds of children at three schools and one church so far, and I would love to speak at many more.
So far, in the last year, we've been able to send about 1,200 stuffed animals to Haiti, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Bolivia and Thailand. Eventually, I'd like to see them go out to every continent.
Q: What part does the children's book you're holding play in your organization?
A: This is "Elizabeti's Doll" by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen. I actually discovered the book at my daughter Olivia's open house at Northern Heights on the same day I decided to form Gifts for the Heart International.
It's a sweet book based on a true story. I quickly realized it's the perfect book to explain what we're doing.
Q: How so?
A: Elizabeti is a little girl living in poverty in Tanzania. She doesn't have a doll or a stuffed animal, but she finds a rock to take care of. In the last picture, she's shown sleeping with her rock.
Instead of a rock to love, I ask our local children how wouldn't it be better if she could have a stuffed animal. American children often do not understand that children in many countries don't have something as simple as a stuffed animal.
Q: That must make quite an impact on a child.
A: Originally I just wanted to donate stuffed animals, but I also came to realize how much this could help our children to learn, too, so it has become a two-pronged mission.
Q: How do you ship the animals?
A: I've reached out to various organizations to transport them, especially Starfish Ministries, which works in Haiti. You wouldn't believe how many stuffed animals can fit in a vacuum-sealed suitcase!
Q: Did anything in particular prompt you to start your charity?
A: What prompted me was my passion for helping people and the love the children in our family have for stuffed animals. And I've always dreamed of doing something bigger than my day-to-day life, something that could really help people.
Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.
- People can donate stuffed animals to Gifts for the Heart International at Half Pints Children's Consignment, 2701 Meridian St., Bellingham.
- To arrange to donate money or stuffed animals, or to invite Lisa Stewart to speak to a school or group, contact her at 206-618-6972 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is giftsfortheheart.org.