RICHMOND, CALIFORNIA–The adult world can be a scary place for children, especially when things go wrong. When a child is plunged into the turmoil of an emergency situation, such as a crime or natural disaster, a simple gesture of care in the form of a stuffed animal can become an emotional anchor to keep the child from being swept away by despair. Natalie Kniess knows this to be true. As the director of the northern California chapter of Stuffed Animals for Emergencies (SAFE), she works to collect second-hand plush toys, clean them, and then distribute them to the Red Cross, police and fire departments, as well community service groups that interact with children in need.
“There’s just something universally comforting about a stuffed animal,” Natalie says. “It’s very deep and very powerful. Like a hug.”
A restaurateur who lives with her family in Richmond, a city in the East San Francisco Bay Area, Natalie runs SAFE in her spare time, enlisting local Girl Scout troops to help clean and distribute the stuffed animals. Children providing comfort to other children is one of the primary goals of what Natalie hopes to accomplish with the program.
“I really believe in kids helping kids,” she explains.
SAFE is a national program founded in 1997 by Cammie Sanders, who later became Ms. Florida US Continental 2002. When Natalie heard about the program, the idea immediately resonated with her. Her parents had divorced when she was a child; her father had been a newspaper publisher in the Bay Area and was very involved in their community. There was a stark contrast between the positive environment of her father’s house and the troubled environment in the home occupied by her mother, who was struggling with alcoholism. Growing up between those two worlds helped shape Natalie’s philosophy about the importance and rewards of giving back to the community.
Natalie first saw the power of stuffies while working with the Contra Costa County Sherriff’s Department as part of her Neighborhood Watch program. The Department is responsible for a sprawling county that includes a number of rough neighborhoods. As the county faced budget cuts, deputies were left with fewer and fewer resources to help children they came across in those neighborhoods. Natalie took it upon herself to make sure that deputies always had at least one resource to soften the blow of reality on the children they encountered.
“I first bought them a box of stuffed little tigers, but then realized that this was going to get expensive, so I found SAFE,” she recalls. “Once I signed on, I realized, ‘Jeez, there’s millions of these high quality stuffies needing good homes.’”
Prior to pushing plush in her home turf, Natalie spent a portion of the 1990s in Los Angeles working as a business affairs secretary at Warner Brothers Records. Using her connections in the music industry, she started an alternative magazine called Axss, produced by local, at-risk teens, which provided information about outreach and community services available to those who needed it. Now back in Northern California, Natalie is happy to coordinate the donations of stuffed animals, which come from a number of East Bay communities; many are collected during drives by local police departments and schools that reach out to children as young as those in kindergarten and first grade.
Natalie knows that few other items in the toy chest offer the soft warmth of a plush toy, which give these animals a deeper emotional attachment, and she’s found that children are usually reluctant to simply throw away even their less-used animals—they want them to go to a new home where they’ll be loved. Being able to give up a beloved (or semi-beloved!) animal helps small children—who may be too young to volunteer at adult-focused programs, such as homeless shelters or food banks–learn about empathy and compassion for their peers.
“This is a fun, baby step to get them started,” Natalie says. “If we can impress on [Children] the kindness and empathy and compassion, we’re just going to have a better world ahead of us.”
Want to get involved?
You may donate your new and gently used stuffed animals via our chapters page or you can make a monetary donation. All monetary donations to SAFE will be tax deductible pending the approval of our 501c3 application sometime around the summer of 2014. SAFE will keep all donor information and will be sending you a tax receipt upon approval of our 501c3.