The Syrian Toy Project will receive World Experiences Foundation’s Global Citizen Award in Nonprofits on Saturday, September 9 at the Embassy Suites in Downtown Oklahoma City.

In March 2015, a visiting peace ambassador’s call to action inspired then University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma students to collect and deliver more than 1,100 stuffed toys for children overseas. Beth Pierce, of Wynnewood, and Torri Rillema, of Purcell, were moved to action when an evening lecture showed them a way to improve the lives of children displaced from their homes and families by the horrors of war. Hind Kabawat, a senior program officer for the United States Institute of Peace and a native Syrian, visited the campus in January to share insights into Syria’s civil war as part of USAO’s Ableson Religious Reconciliation Lecture.

During a question and answer session, Pierce, a senior elementary education major, asked Kabawat what people could do to help. After listing a number of organizations to which people could donate or volunteer, Kabawat said she had seen some of the most dramatic responses from children in the camps to teddy bears she took on her visits. “The way that they hold these teddy bears and look at me with this big smile, it almost brought me to tears,” Kabawat said. “After that, we started collecting stuffed animals. Every kid, this is what they want. It’s important to bring them food, of course, but the toy is so simple.”

Pierce and Rillema knew what they wanted to do. They approached Jeanne Mather, professor of education, who has experience organizing donation drives from her 18 years at the head of Books for Tots. Books for Tots has donated more than 101,000 books to children from economically disadvantaged families at Christmas time. Mather used her mailing list of more than 500 past and current education students to get out the word about the stuffed animal drive.

Pierce and Rillema reached out, through social media, to organizations near and far to contribute to the drive. Rillema, a junior elementary education major, enlisted her sister’s Girl Scout troop in Tuttle to aid with the drive and received considerable donations from the Future Career and Community Leaders organization at Dibble High School. The project received a big boost on Facebook from the Karam Foundation, a charity that specializes in crises in the Middle East, which included them in its Random Acts of Kindness week initiative.

Driven by donations as close as the campus itself and as far away as France, Pierce and Rillema collected more than 1,100 stuffed animals and toys by the end of February. One problem remained — how to get the toys to Washington, D.C., home of the United States Institute of Peace?

The original plan had been to drive Pierce’s car, but the toys would no longer fit. “We had to convince my mother to borrow her SUV and drive it across the country,” Rillema said. “We just missed the Oklahoma snowstorm by a few hours. It took two days to get there and two days to get back.” While in Washington, they were stunned by Kabawat and her associates’ hospitality. “Hind actually gave us her apartment while we were there,” Pierce said. “She went and stayed with her mom. We met with a lot of the people from the USIP. We went to dinner with Hind and some USIP dignitaries.” “It was probably the most educational experience of my life, watching this room full of Christians, Buddhists, Jews and Muslims debating about what to do.”

Mather said she is proud of what the two accomplished.

“The degree of dedication these young ladies displayed was really inspirational. It just shows how much difference a single person can make. They weren’t afraid to tackle a huge project,” Mather said. “I hope that would inspire other people to do the same. Start little and aim big.”

Pierce is hesitant to accept praise for what they accomplished,“We just want people to understand what’s going on over there so that enough people will care about it and do something about it. Teddy bears aren’t going to save them. People who care and want to make a change is what is going to save them.”

Rillema came away from the experience similarly motivated to help change attitudes about the Syrian conflict.“It’s important for us to realize that we have a lot of misconceptions about Middle Eastern cultures. It’s not ‘Us versus Them’ and as long as we continue to view it that way, we are contributing to the problem rather than the solution.,” she said.

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