It's hard to lose someone you love, so when Isabella Smarro’s grandmother passed away, she wanted to do something to help others and honor her nana’s memory.
“Nana loved stuffed teddy bears,” said Smarro. “You walked in her house and they were everywhere.”
The Schenectady High School sophomore and her mother, Natalie Smarro, who owns Trendy Tots on Upper Union Street, decided to share the warmth and love they felt being with Nana with others by collecting and distributing stuffed animals.
Within two short weeks of launching the drive, Isabella had collected more than 40 large garbage bags filled with stuffed animals. There were enough bags to cover a 1,200-square-foot storage room above Natalie’s shop.
“Kids would bring their stuffed animals [into Trendy Tots] with their parents,” said Natalie, who regularly collects and donates items to charities. This drive, she said, was different because children were donating their own things to a good cause.
Getting the stuffed animals to charities and first responders is not as simple as just dropping off a garbage bag of animals and hitting the road.
Before the stuffed animals are donated, Natalie, Isabella and sometimes Isabella’s younger brother, Aidan, 10, sort through the donations, one by one. They pick through each bag and pull out what needs a deeper cleaning.
Once the toys are cleaned and freshened up, Isabella and Aidan sort them into piles by size and affix tags with the logo that Isabella designed.
Isabella said the process is long and tiresome.
“I was pooped out,” she said. “But it’s for a good cause. I want to do this, but I’m human, too.”
Spurred by her mother’s encouragement and the goal of bringing joy and comfort to children who need it, Isabella sorted and tagged the stuffed animals until there were enough to start dropping off at local charities and fire stations.
Isabella, Natalie and Aidan made the first round of donations on July 27 to Quest Schenectady. Located in a former church on State Street, Quest Schenectady aims to be a place of safety and consistency for kids who need a place to go during the day.
Judy Atchinson heads the nonprofit and was thrilled to receive and distribute nearly 45 stuffed animals.
“The kids we have are pretty special,” said Atchinson. “Most have ADD or personal crises. We have great kids and they all like Isabella. I cannot speak highly enough of that family.”
Atchinson noted that Natalie and the children have donated clothes and winter coats to Quest Schenectady in the past, as well as put on events such as an Easter egg hunt.
“We don’t ask, they just remember us,” said Atchinson. “I cannot thank her enough.”
In addition to Quest Schenectady, Isabella and her mom also planned to take the donated toys to Raindrops Closet of Schenectady, which helps homeless families; Grassroot Givers in Albany; and local fire departments for firefighters and EMS personnel to hand out at emergency scenes.
While this is the first time Isabella has initiated and managed a donation drive, it is not her first time giving back.
Natalie regularly collects and donates clothing. Isabella and Aidan help sort, fold and hang the clothing. It gives them the chance to talk about helping others and giving back to the community.
“If you give back, they give back to you emotionally. It makes you happy,” said Isabella. “It’s a good way to spend your time.”
As Isabella continues to spend her time cleaning, sorting and tagging stuffed animals, Natalie hopes that Nana approves.
“I hope she’s watching Isabella and is proud of her,” Natalie said.
Isabella and Natalie have set up a Facebook group for anyone who wishes to keep up with the project. It may be found by searching Facebook for Nana’s Love: Teddy Bear & Stuffed Animal Drive.