Mount Greylock Regional High students Kat Chenail, left, and Emily Kaegi share a laugh over a stuffed Ernie at Williamstown Elementary School. Ernie was one of more than 900 gently used stuffed toys collected for children in family court.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — On a Monday afternoon one week before Christmas, Kat Chenail, a high school senior, and Emily Kaegi, a junior, were back at their old elementary school oohing and ahhing over stuffed animals.
A brief regression to childhood? Well, maybe just a little.
But in reality, their mission was more serious and their motives much more mature.
While they did enjoy briefly playing with the toys, they actually were there to bag them up so they could deliver the playthings to children who truly need them.
The Mount Greylock Regional High School students this month organized a used stuffed animal drive at Williamstown Elementary School. The more than 900 toys they collected are bound for the arms of children caught up in the family court system throughout Western Massachusetts.
"My mom is a juvenile judge, so she does a lot of adoptions, and she deals with a lot of kids who are in foster care," Chenail explained. "It was kind of her idea almost. We came up with it together. She wanted to do something nice for kids who are pulled out of their homes because of their family situations.
"I thought of giving them stuffed animals."
After sorting through the toys and making sure they were all in good shape to pass along, the girls ended up with 923 stuffed animals that will be distributed to courthouses in all three Western Mass counties, starting with the court in North Adams, Chenail said.
Why stuffed animals?
"I think that especially for smaller children, it can help," Chenail said. "I remember when I was little, whenever I was having a rough day or things were not going great, I'd get in bed and cuddle with my stuffed animal. I don't know. They're just like good friends to have, almost. You can always cry with your stuffed animal and play with them."
And the children in the family court system sometimes can need a "friend," Kaegi said.
"With a lot of these kids, [change] is so sudden that they don't get to go back to their homes and take their things," she said. "So they might not get their own stuffed animal. To get something they can at least have to comfort them is important."
The drive coincided with the holiday season, which allowed children at the elementary school - and their parents - to put some underused toys to good use just in time to get ready for the arrival of new toys that December often brings.
Chenail and Kaegi visited the school earlier this month and talked about the program with every class, going classroom by classroom through the school of 442 pupils.
"We only had a two-minute talk," Kaegi said. "By the end, we had it down. We knew exactly who was going to say what."
The pair set up a couple of cardboard collection boxes in the school's second-floor corridor, but those boxes were soon filled well past capacity, and stuffed animals were spilling across the floor.
"Wow," said Kaegi, the junior, when she walked up the stairs and saw the volume of donations.
"I think the kids are really excited about it," Chenail said. "One of the reasons for keeping it out in the open was for them to see the stuffed animals and get excited about it."
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