When a young child is frightened or hurting, a soft stuffed animal can be a big source of comfort.
Now when disaster strikes youngsters in the central Kenai Peninsula, they can turn to plush companions for solace, thanks to other children.
Students at Sterling Elementary School raised funds this spring for toys to donate to Central Emergency Services.
The successful project was the brainchild of second-grader Carly Lund, age 8.
Friday, at the school's awards assembly, she presented a load of about 50 toy animals to Gary Hale, the fire marshal at CES, who also leads safety education outreach programs in the schools.
"It means a lot to the fire department," Hale said of the donation.
"We probably give out 36 animals in a year. ... I know any child would like to have some of these. They are just adorable."
Emergency responders take stuffed animals along in ambulances and fire trucks. When they deal with children in extreme situations, giving youngsters fuzzy friends can ease stress and distract from pain. Scared children latch onto such things, he said.
Carly's idea began with a sad event. The family of a girl in her class suffered a house fire, losing Christmas presents and other possessions. The girl took comfort in a stuffed animal a friend gave her. The situation touched all the children deeply.
Later, Carly was watching a television show, "Zoom," and saw a segment about students who raised funds and bought stuffed animals for emergency use. She immediately saw a link.
"She was all excited," said her mother, Lynn Lund, who serves as president of the school's Parent Teacher Association this year.
"She approached me and asked if she could be a guest speaker at our PTA meeting. She kept bugging me."
The PTA agreed to back Carly's proposal.
They put buckets in classrooms and invited students to donate pennies and other change. Within a few weeks, they had more than $200.
"I think just about every kid in the class donated," said Roy Shapley, Carly's teacher.
The entire school got involved, but he credited the Lunds for all the motivation.
"It totally came from Carly and her mom," he said.
He praised the PTA's role, saying it has grown in size and activity this year.
"It's been a real positive year with the PTA. This PTA just went out and cleaned the clock. ... They did a super job."
Lynn Lund said counting the piles of pennies actually took longer than collecting them. The final tally came in at $253.89. Then the PTA approached Big Kmart in Kenai.
The store offered them a 30 percent discount on any stuffed animals they chose, which allowed them to stretch their dollars farther than anticipated. Early last week, Lynn Lund and PTA Vice President Charlene Oakes went shopping and loaded up on cutesy critters.
Carly was at school and missed that part of the fun.
"I didn't actually get to look at them yet," she said. "I just saw them at the assembly."
She noted that CES used to have little stuffed animals, but now they can pass out bigger ones.
Hale noticed the difference.
Little animals were easy to stow in the bins on emergency vehicles. The bigger ones will present a storage challenge, but he said he had no doubt that CES can find plenty of room for the plush pals.
"We can do," he said with a smile.
Meanwhile, the Lunds already are planning ways to follow up next year with an even bigger charity drive.
Carly spoke about graduating from penny collections to dollar bills and maybe buying blankets as well as toys.
Lynn said she is game for expanding the project next year, perhaps to other schools and area businesses. She intends to encourage Carly's interest in charity work every step of the way.
"I am very proud of her," she said.
"I think we might try it again. She was thrilled."
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