She doesn’t like to compare herself to Santa Claus, but for hundreds of children, she’s been just that.
Rina and her small team have visited 22 countries in the past 18 years to deliver small gifts throughout the world.
She’s reached hundreds of children. But why focus on toys? Why not just donate money instead?
For starters, toys help to create a child’s sense of imagination and ownership. “These kids have nothing,” Rina told me. “Often I have to spend time with the children convincing them that the toy is theirs. They can protect it, feed it, bathe it, negotiate with it, or do whatever. Something as simple as that is something they rarely experience. It’s powerful and special.”
Toys help kids learn. According to Peter Grey, a research professor at Boston College*: “Toys help children to explore possibilities of different characters and worlds. Doing so requires a great deal of intellectual effort and helps to exercise social abilities.”
She’s skeptical of donating. “The reason I don’t just donate money is because I don’t know where it goes,” Rina told me. “Will the people who need the money actually get it? At least when I visit these places, I know they’ll get something because I’m the one handing it to them.”
Rina and Jared are not wealthy. Far from it, actually. Jared works for the U.S. Department of Defense as a contract administrator and is also in the Navy Reserve. Rina is an actress who works in commercials, a career that doesn’t always provide a steady income. Currently they live in a modest trailer in Van Nuys, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles.
Would they love to donate thousands of iPads instead of secondhand dolls and clothes? Would they love to combat poverty at a systemic level? Maybe. But they’re doing what they can with the means afforded to them. During a good year, they’re lucky to bring home a combined $70,000 in salary. That’s pretty good in today’s world, but once you factor in that this project now has a yearly price tag of $35,000 to execute, it changes things.
“We don’t have a big house, cable television, fancy restaurant dinners, or the newest computers,” Rina says. “But I have the greatest husband in the world, a wonderful son, and a great mission. When I look at those children smiling, I know that we are truly making a difference.”
In a world of armchair activists where everyone has an opinion on how someone chooses to improve the world, I hope people will look at Rina and be thankful that she’s doing something. In this instance, the “something” she’s doing is extremely valuable.
The painful reality that she can’t do it alone.
No matter how hard she tries, and no matter how many toys she brings, there’s no way that every child will receive one. That absolutely crushes her.
After keeping the project in relative stealth mode for almost two decades, she knew it was time for a change, so she and Jared began reaching out to the public.
Rina and Jared admit to not having the time or expertise to manage a full-blown nonprofit, so they’ve partnered with an organization that receives 5% of the contributions to cover administrative and management costs, letting the couple focus on delivering toys and smiles.
A documentary called, “One Toy at a Time” will be released in 2016, as well.
“I didn’t want the attention before, but now I know we need help,” Rina told me. “I feel like I’ve done a lot, but there is only so much I can do.”
You can’t put a price on the happiness of a child.
Rina and her team are going to make their final trip of 2015 to Nicaragua before Christmas. Even though many view her as Santa Claus, she shrugs off any comparisons. She just wants to see more kids grow up to be happy.
“Happiness is measured in smiles. If these toys can help more kids smile and learn, they will hopefully become happy adults.”
Speaking of smiles, this little girl below has a beautiful one. Her mother worked long hours selling coconuts near Santiago, the second-largest city in the Dominican Republic. The doll Rina provided moved the mother to tears and gave this little lady one of the happiest moments of her life.