Sharon Kidd has wanted to organize a Toys for Tots drive for the last three years, but it never quite panned out. This year, though, she got an early start on applying to be an organizer, and when her application was approved, she knew exactly who she wanted to partner with.
Enter Dameyonna Willis, founder of Queen I AM, a local organization designed to encourage self-love, self-respect, and self-understanding in young girls. Kidd and Willis, both entrepreneurs and mothers, first met in the Neighborhood Leadership Development Program, and Kidd knew her friend could be an invaluable partner in the work.
“Even in the pandemic, I’m still providing consistent programming,” says Willis, who works as a success coach at Cuyahoga Community College and has a degree in nonprofit administration. “I knew I had a direct contact with families and a good rapport with families, and this was a way for us to continue to give back and be another blessing to the families I’m working with and to families I haven’t reached yet.”
Together, they got to work spreading the word about their Toys for Tots drive. Before collecting the gifts themselves, they set out to register 500 children in need throughout the Cleveland area.
“We really just used the people we knew who were in need, and from there, a lot of it was word of mouth,” says Kidd, a Cleveland Rape Crisis Center employee who holds a master’s degree in business administration. They reached out to their personal and professional networks, including contacts at schools, after-school programs, neighborhood organizations, churches, and rec centers. Willis reached out to the families she works with through Queen I AM, and Kidd posted to her Instagram account, @tabletalkCLE, which she uses to help Cleveland parents connect with valuable local resources.
Ultimately, they maxed out their registration list and closed enrollment – thanks in large part to their colleague Tawina Bizzell, founder of the local nonprofit From One Mother to Another, who was responsible for registering 153 children. “Her organization was one of the primary reasons that we were able to reach close to 500 families,” Kidd says.
Next, they turned their focus to collecting toys, monetary donations, gift cards, and other items to distribute to the children and families on their list. They established an Amazon wish list populated with a variety of toys designed for the children ages 0 to 14, and they’re collecting gift cards of all sorts (think Visa, Chipotle, Target, etc.) for teens ages 15-18 to ensure that no one is left out. Each child on their registration list will receive two gifts, and the women are making sure that all donations are up to snuff, in terms of quality: “If it’s not something we would give our own kids, we’ll upgrade those gifts,” Kidd says.
As they registered local kids for Toys for Tots, the two women started to hear about families’ other needs, as well. “We started to get calls from individuals in need of other resources, too, like housing and food,” says Willis. “We were sending people resources to help with rent and utilities, directing them to food pantries. It’s branched out bigger than just Toys for Tots and become about human services, beyond just toys.”
To accommodate families’ needs and better serve the community, the women expanded their collection services. Now, registered families will also have access to toiletries, Christmas trees donated by a local WalMart, and holiday décor donated by a local branch of Huntington Bank; an employee of Tito’s Vodka donated a liquor tree that the women are raffling off to raise money to purchase additional toys and gift cards.
“It caught on really fast, and it was overwhelming, but it was a good overwhelming,” Willis says. “This is what it feels like to be in the trenches and overwhelmed with joy to see other people excited about being a part of this.”
On December 13, Kidd and Willis will host a distribution day at A Touch of Rain Nail Spa and Polished Professionals Barber Shop, two neighboring businesses on Larchmere that signed on to help; the event will be staffed by volunteers from Jeep Invaders and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women Inc. Greater Cleveland Chapter. Each recipient family has a designated 15-minute time slot in which to pick up the toys and other items set aside for them; face masks are required, and volunteers will be doing temperature checks at the door.
In addition to toys, toiletries, and Christmas décor, prepackaged snacks will be available, and Literacy in the Hood will be on site to provide families with books. Kidd and Willis are also looking into additional resources they can give to families to be as helpful as possible during difficult times. “It’s a pandemic,” Kidd says, “so we really want to be a wraparound support for these families.”
Both women have been stunned by the outpouring of support and donations from the local community that has allowed them to organize such a large-scale event. “People have been giving and giving and giving and have continued to be a blessing over and over again,” Willis says.
They are accepting donations until December 10th in an effort to clear out their Amazon wish list, purchase more gift cards for teens, and assist registered families in as many ways as possible. Here are three ways you can help:
- Purchase a toy from their Amazon wish list to be sent directly to them.
- Send money via Cash App to $SharonDKidd, noting that it’s a donation for Toys for Tots.
- Mail or drop off donations at Touch of Rain Nail Spa, 12407 Larchmere Blvd., Cleveland, OH 44120.
“Giving back and acts of service is my thing,” says Kidd, a stage-four cancer survivor. “I’ve been lying low [this year], and I needed to get back into the swing of things. To make me feel better, I needed to give back. As part of rejuvenating myself and getting back to the old me, this is something I needed to make happen at all costs.”