Mom donates stuffed animals to kids in shelters
Kathy Gersper isn’t able to see the reactions of the children who receive the stuffed animals she collects for them at this time of year.
Their letters of thanks, though, tug at her heartstrings.
One, she recalled, relayed the story of a traumatized young boy who would speak only to the teddy bear he was given courtesy of Gersper’s efforts. Others revealed stories of kids who toted the bears into a courtroom for comfort as they testified about the abusive situations from which they and their mothers had fled.
“The kids — what they go through — that just tears at me,” said Gersper, a Westerville resident who as a younger woman survived domestic violence. “It is making a difference.”
Inspired by her own experience, Gersper for the past seven holiday seasons has gathered stuffed animals to donate to domestic-violence shelters throughout the state. She knows how those fleeing tumultuous situations have limited time to grab only essential items before an abuser might return home. And she hopes the gifts help soothe often-traumatized youngsters, whose own teddy bears might have been forgotten or left behind.
“Sometimes they just need something to hug while Mommy’s getting counseling,” said Gersper, who has raised six sons with her husband of 27 years. “They might not have their favorite toy or blanket.”
Gersper initiated the effort in 2011 while living in Mount Gilead and has continued it since moving to Westerville two years ago to be closer to her job with the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association.
The donations really took off in 2013, after Gersper spoke about them during the OCSEA annual conference. Attendees pledged more than $16,000 in donations, she said, allowing her to buy plush toys from area stores and deliver them to every domestic violence shelter in the state.
Kathy’s Creature Comforts — as she has since dubbed the effort — is an undertaking that her entire office of about 120 now supports each year.
“It has ... become a festive gathering for employees,” said Joe Mongolier, OCSEA’s facility coordinator.
Every year before Thanksgiving, Gersper calls 88 shelters throughout Ohio to see how many stuffed animals they could use. In 2017, the number ranged from 12 to 60.
Many of the stuffed animals she collects — she asks that they be new and at least 1 foot in length (the perfect size for snuggling) — are donated by individuals or companies.
Gersper also raises money through raffles and other public events to buy additional stuffed animals, with area stores often offering discounts when they learn about her cause.
Last year, Creature Comforts collected 1,410 stuffed animals, some of which were donated but most purchased with the $7,087 Gersper and others raised. (Each year, she gives any extra plush animals to a nearby fire station for its own charity drive.)
Creature Comforts donations are down this year, said Gersper, noting that she would like to raise $4,500 more to meet all of the shelters’ requests.
Some of the money last year came from a fundraiser organized by Sigrid Rother, associate pastor at the Westerville Community United Church of Christ.
Gersper isn’t a member of that church, but Rother met her when Rother’s husband worked with Gersper at OCSEA. Moved by the cause, she brought together youths in the church to make buckeyes to sell at the church’s annual fund-raiser.
The kids didn’t host a second Buckeyes for Bears table at the bazaar this year, Rother said, but many members still contributed to Creature Comforts.
“I think she’s an incredible woman, and I wanted to support her,” Rother said. “What Kathy is doing is totally outstanding.”
Every holiday season, the stuffed animals that Gersper buys and collects slowly pile up toward the ceiling in a vacant office cubicle.
In about two weeks Christmas, the entire office will sort, pack and load all the donations — stuffed caterpillars, dinosaurs and pandas, in addition to bears.
From there, Gersper and about 30 other volunteers — friends, family and co-workers — drive around the state to meet shelter contacts at gas stations or stores — to protect the shelter locations.
“It’s so much fun,” said Nadine Kempton, a database developer at OCSEA’s Westerville office.
Kempton always helps sort and pack the donations, and she often donates some stuffed critters to the cause.
“It’s nice knowing that all these little kids who have basically been ripped out of their homes for the holidays are going to get something nice,” the Mount Gilead resident said. “I know a kid is going to get it and go crazy over it.”
Nicole Gersper, daughter-in-law of Kathy Gersper, unloads donated stuffed animals from the trunk of her car for the collection. The animals are taken all over the state. Kathy Gersper in an office cubicle where she stores donated stuffed animals for holiday delivery to children in domestic violence shelters.