Matthew Sheintul and Emily Fagan, seniors at Seaford High School, decided in mid-October that they wanted to help their community. They saw an opportunity to give back, by helping the John Theissen Children’s Foundation with its annual Holiday Toy & Fund Drive. Community members who take part usually either donate a few toys to the charity or spend time in the foundation’s Wantagh headquarters, helping to unbox incoming gifts and organize them.
Sheintul and Fagan took it one step further. They reached out to members of their neighborhood and school community, using social media, and created an Amazon “wish list” link featuring holiday toys and other items. Others have also added items since October. The goal was to collect as many gifts as possible for families that are struggling this winter, and the teens’ plan was to make the process as easy, accessible and user-friendly as possible, even for people who may not be as technologically savvy.
“One of the main things that popped in my mind when thinking about doing this was that this year has been hard on a lot of people,” Sheintul said. “None of these things are fair, and anyone in the household losing a job can really take a toll on a family. We as a community need to bring some sort of hope back into the household.”
In early October, when Sheintul was devising the plan, it had been only weeks since he had helped Theissen with another of his annual efforts, the Back to School Drive. That focused on collecting school supplies for students whose families might not be able to replace their materials from the year before. Sheintul said he helped collect and organize packages of notebooks, pencils, binders and other materials. “I started volunteering with him in seventh grade,” he said of Theissen.
Sheintul said he admired the work Theissen has been doing for years in the Wantagh and Seaford communities and beyond, and that he believed the target groups for the school supply drive and toy drive may have more overlap now than in years past. Sheintul said that coping with a new method of schooling while being unable to see family members and friends can dramatically affect a child or teen’s mental state. “Kids who are sick, in the hospital or who are poorer are even more affected,” he said. “They deserve presents to cheer them up.”
Fagan wasn’t enlisted to help initially, but when she heard about the idea, she asked Sheintul if she could get take part. Her only previous involvement with the Theissen Foundation came when her Seaford Girl Scout Troop, 3317, volunteered to help the organization when she was younger. She has done community service of her own, working with special needs teens, and she said that she and Sheintul would likely be recognized at their high school graduation for their involvement in projects like these, but that’s not why they do it.
“There are families that have to focus more on other financial needs at the moment,” Fagan said. “Knowing it may be hard for families to focus on gifts for the holidays, we want to make them feel that they’re cared for. That’s important.”
In October and November, Fagan and Sheintul started seeing their Amazon wish list clicked on more often. While they acknowledged that there are toy stores nearby, they stressed that the ubiquitous nature of Amazon lent itself to more possible donations. As the momentum of the donations started picking up, Sheintul’s mother, Jodi, a member of the Seaford Middle School PTA, posted the link on her Facebook page. “That really helped, as a lot of people in the community know her,” Matthew said.
Last month, Jodi’s shared link produced mounds of gifts sent to the Sheintul home, which now line her bedroom and the living room. Matthew picked up some of the donated gifts from community members. At press time, he said his house had well over 200 gifts, most of them from the wish list.
“It was unbelievable. I was shocked,” Matthew said. “Every day, seven to eight packages would show up at the door,” He chuckled as he added, “I’ve never seen that many toys in one room.”
“And there are still more coming,” Fagan added. The two expect to amass 300 gifts or more by the end of Theissen’s holiday drive.