As the blue couch inside the small office of A Call To Serve International overflows with donated stuffed animals, two women struggle to get through the door with more bundles of toys to add to the growing collection.
Boxes line the floors and walls of the Columbia office, but as Trish Blair, the director of the local ACTS International, said, they are going to need more.
The stuffed animals are only part of a collection of donated items to be shipped to one of Columbia’s sister cities, Kutaisi in the republic of Georgia.
“None of the children of Georgia have seen stuffed animals like kids in the United States have,” Blair said. “They hold them and look at you as if they couldn’t imagine it was theirs.”
Although the drive began Sunday, Blair estimates there are about 1,000 “gently used” stuffed animals already collected, along with $63,000 in medical supplies, and several study carrels. The donated items are sorted, counted, and packed into a 40-foot sea container, which will leave for the East Coast this morning.
Once the stuffed animals arrive in Kutaisi, they will be distributed to refugee children, who as Blair explains, need them the most. The remaining toys will be given to children at a deaf school, a blind school, three orphanages and a children’s hospital. The medical supplies, including gowns, intravenous tubes and needles, and surgical instruments, will be distributed among the sister city’s hospitals. The desks will go to elementary schools.
Since 1992, when Blair organized the ACTS International center in Columbia, she has worked closely with the ACTS-Georgia president, George Tsilosani, to coordinate economic aid to Kutaisi and other parts of Georgia. Blair established both nonprofit organizations, and the Georgia center was the first nonprofit organization ever created in the country.
Blair said Georgia is a country particularly in need because of its economic devastation since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Georgia, whose population of about 5 million is similar in size to that of Missouri, has a yearly budget of about $700 million, compared to Missouri’s $18 billion.
In the past, the Columbia center has organized shipments of medicine, a toy shipment in 2000 similar to this year’s, as well as yearly shipments of 100 tons of iodized salt in an effort to combat the iodine deficiency in their diets. ACTS has a base of more than 3,000 children to whom it regularly distributes food and other donations.
While the iodized salt and medical supplies are certainly needed, Blair explains the importance of giving things like toys as well to children who might not have ever owned one.
Not all the stuffed animals donated throughout the two days of this drive will fit into the one 40-foot container. The rest will be packed into two more containers that will leave in a couple of weeks. Blair hopes to be able to raise enough money to build a warehouse where larger quantities of supplies may be stored and packed, as well as a repacking plant for larger cartons of salt. The salt collection is an ongoing program.
Although much work is done in Columbia to gather donations and ship the materials, the team of Georgians who await the shipment are an equally important part of the process. To get Georgia back on its feet economically, Blair emphasizes the importance of having organizers in their own country.
“I believe the leadership should be Georgian,” she said.