What began as a father’s heartfelt wish to bring a smile to the face of his three-year-old daughter in the hospital has grown into a staple program of the Orthodox Union Department of Community Engagement around the winter holiday season.
“My heart ached as my daughter sat there,” reflected Frank Buchweitz, OU director of Community Services. “The holiday season can become such a time of darkness for children in general-I decided then and there that I wanted to do something to bring light and smiles to the faces of children who could not be home. What better and simpler idea than to give them a toy? Something they can call their own that helps to alleviate pain or loneliness.”
In the 17 years since Buchweitz established the Orthodox Union Beautiful Child Toy Drive, thousands of toys have been donated to children of all ages around Metropolitan New York and New Jersey area hospitals. More than 500 toys were distributed this year during Chanukah, according to coordinators Hannah Farkas, OU Community Engagement program manager, and Adina Schwarzbaum, OU Community Engagement administrative assistant.
High quality popular toys are purchased with funds collected through online donations or by donors purchasing pre-selected gifts from an Amazon Wish List overseen by OU Community Engagement which are sent directly to hospitals.
“It is because of people and organizations like you that we are able to continue to make a difference in the lives of children in the hospital every day,” wrote Lenia Batas, director of Child Life Services at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn. “The beautiful toys were a welcome addition to our program and playroom. Without your continued support, we would not be able to do or give as much as we do.”
At the NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital Holiday party, children could select a toy of their choice from among more than 70 on the table. From left: Judi Steinig, OU Community Services associate director, with Beautiful Child Toy Drive coordinators Hannah Farkas, OU Community Engagement program manager and
From its first year based at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, the toy drive has grown locally to seven, then nine, now twelve locations: Hackensack Hospital, Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, and Englewood Hospital in New Jersey; NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, NYU Langone Medical Center, Maimonides Medical Center, Mount Sinai Hospital Medical Center, Beth Israel Hospital, and Westchester Medical Center in New York.
In 2013, the program expanded nationally to include toy donations for Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, part of the University Hospital Medical Center.
Three months ahead of Chanukah each year, the staff of OU Community Engagement contacts the hospital pediatric units informing them that the OU would like to make toy donations for the holiday.
“Essentially, we have relationships with all of the hospitals, and they are always very excited to receive gifts from us,” said Hannah Farkas. “It’s a very positive experience for all involved. The hospitals are grateful for our donations because they are not always receiving the gifts that they need; we tailor our donations based upon guidelines set by each hospital for safety and sterilization. Each has a different number of beds available for pediatric patient care and service clientele of varying ages and developmental stages-we really try to find appropriate gifts that will be enjoyed for each of them.”
When Buchweitz first created the OU Beautiful Child Toy Drive, “The idea was not only to bring gifts to the kids, but to sit and talk with them,” he explained. “Yet we coordinate the toy deliveries based upon the preference of the hospital. For a few years, our volunteers were able to take a cart and go room to room delivering a different toy to teach child handpicked by nurses who knew his or her interests-it was a real sense of giving. Yet due to health concerns, we oblige many of the hospital’s wishes to collect the desired toys and drop them off for hospital staff to distribute.”
Any child that is affiliated with the pediatrics department is who we’re going to service, Hannah Farkas emphasized. “We make no distinctions between children who are Jewish and those who are not. The toys are for all children.”
“The excitement on the children’s faces when opening the presents is truly wonderful,” wrote Michelle Brauntuch, child life specialist at Englewood Hospital. “We appreciate all the effort and thoughtfulness that goes into picking out the toys, and delivering them to our hospital. We are so grateful for your support.”
“The generosity of organizations such as the Orthodox Union, who are so willing to think about the children and bring toys for them, really raises their spirits,” said Ana Furnari, event coordinator at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, who has worked with the OU on the Beautiful Child Drive for the past three years. “It really cheers them up, especially when they’re in the hospital and hospitalized for such a long time.” The hospital hosts an annual Chanukah party at which volunteers from the OU are invited to present toys on a table for children to select themselves; remaining gifts are brought to children unable to attend the party by hospital staff.
Hannah Farkas hopes to expand the program to include other hospitals and communities outside of the Greater New York/New Jersey area. Volunteers willing to serve as point person for donation distribution may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 212-613-8351.