Not every child’s day is like the other, especially those in need for joy to brighten up their lives. In the American University of Sharjah under its Community Services Division, the Toy Stories Initiative strives to make that possible and give a helping hand by drawing a smile on the faces of those desperately in need of one.
Driven with passion to spread happiness among the needy, a group of AUS students formed an initiative that hosts workshops on-and-off university campus to stitch toys that later get hand-delivered to social centers around the Gulf region and beyond.
From India to Sri Lanka, the initiative runs purpose-oriented workshops, knowing where the toys, university students volunteer to stitch, will be sent to when they’re done before hosting those workshops.
Initiative founder and AUS senior student Karan Gurnani said that a volunteering experience off campus was his inspiration behind the idea of Toy Stories.
“When I volunteered for the Hand in Hand project off campus and pitched a collaboration proposal between them and Community Services Division, they were unfortunately not supportive,” he said.
“That’s when I came up with the idea of having our very own project here on campus. I suggested the idea to superiors within community services and they were extremely supportive,” he added.
Soon after the initiative’s massive success in reaching out to all students in the university, the “family” got bigger, in Gurnani’s words.
“We’ve struggled, we’ve argued, but most of all, we’ve laughed and learned a lot. It is like we are a family, and this why any student should be urged to join us.”
Apart from the volunteers’ will to work on the project for it to prosper, the university has played a major role in the initiative’s success through facilitating all they needed necessary for them to progress, said initiative co-founder and AUS senior student Mehr Patni.
“The university provides us with and covers all our workshop costs of cotton, clothes, scissors, needles, threads, printed patterns for students to sew, and snacks and beverages throughout the three-hour workshop.”
As for the trip’s costs to hand-deliver toys, which are offered to children with candy and other gifts, Patni said: “Since the initiative delivers toys both locally and globally, the costs vary.”
“If we are delivering them locally, the university provides us with means of transport. Globally, however, both the students and the university share the costs.”
Patni added that the toys are kept on campus in a safe room in community services until they get delivered.
The initiative recently held a three-day workshop titled Toy Stories for Nepal, where the toys stitched will be hand-delivered to children in need in Nepal by community services’ volunteers in a trip organised by the university’s Office of Student Affairs.
The workshop welcomed over 130 students with more than 50 completed toys and a dozen others incomplete.
Another initiative co-founder and AUS senior student, Shruthi Srinivasan, has applied for the Nepal trip and is bracing for an experience with a plethora of lessons to take from.
“The trip to Nepal will be an opportunity for me to learn about an entirely different culture than what I am accustomed to,” said Srinivasan.
Approaching the end of her university days and patiently awaiting the Nepal trip, Srinivasan reflects on her experience as a volunteer.
“I have been an active member of the AUS Community Services Division for almost three years now. I believe that anyone in a position to help those less fortunate than themselves must devote part of their efforts to the service of the community,” she said.
Srinivasan added that student volunteers will be visiting a governmental school in Nepal to donate educational material and interact with the students.
“This trip will be an eye opener to people who take the accessibility of education for granted,” she elaborated.
Last semester’s workshop, Mehr Patni notes, was conducted off campus, at the Sajaya Young Ladies of Sharjah organisation, where volunteers taught members of the organisation how to stitch toys.
With all this in mind, Karan Gurnani adds, a volunteer’s experience can go far beyond his own imagination.
“In our last year’s trip to Sri Lanka, we had among us a student who got to see the smile on a child’s face when she gave him the toy she stitched in our workshop. It was incredible.”
The initiative has managed to stitch and deliver over 300 toys since it launched in November 2015.
Students filled the initiative’s last workshop held in early February with laughs and joy as they stitched their toys with the community services’ volunteers’ assistance and already look forward to the next time they get to do that once more.
— The reader is a student at the American University of Sharjah.
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