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  • Writer's pictureNicolle Weeks

Toy Story

I wrote this profile of Aiza Abid, a young charity founder, for (Client: Government of Canada)

Aiza's Teddybear Foundation has given over 100,000 items to kids in need, but she's not stopping there

It started with a teddy bear. In 2013, Aiza Abid's Grade 10 civics class at Oakville, Ontario's Garth Webb Secondary School was given an assignment: take part in a volunteer project of your choice. Some of Aiza's classmates put up posters to create awareness for issues they cared about, and some gave their time to well-known charities.

"I thought, this is it, I'm finally getting time... to create this all-encompassing project to reach out to kids in need," Aiza, now 22, recounts. "I chose teddy bears because I thought, this seems like a very simple act of kindness that any child could carry with them throughout their life."

Aiza's idea was deceptively simple: she'd give teddy bears to kids who needed them. Her first donation went to a seven-year-old boy named Damien who was receiving cancer treatment at McMaster Children's Hospital. Serendipitously, it was right around the corner from where she'd eventually go to university.

"I walked in, so excited to meet him, and I picked out this yellow teddy bear and handed it to him," Aiza remembers. "He was just so excited, his face lit up. He was like, 'How did you know yellow is my favourite colour?'"

Damien's mom pulled Aiza aside and shared that she hadn't seen him so happy in weeks. Aiza recounts the experience emotionally, recognizing that one encounter in a children's hospital helped to shape the next several years of her life. She'd go on to attend McMaster University for kinesiology, explaining that the act of helping Damien played a role in her love for the campus. And that brief moment of giving something to someone in need inspired her to take her teddy bear idea to the next level.

That's when she founded Aiza's Teddybear Foundation. Now it's a non-profit with ten volunteers aged 13-22, working with six high schools, who have gifted over 100,000 stuffed toys and children's clothes to families in need since 2013. In the seven years since that day at the hospital, Aiza's resume has grown along with her foundation. She's a Plan International Youth Ambassador, she's won a YMCA Peace Medal, and she's received the Governor General's Sovereign's Medal for Volunteers.

For the time being, Aiza is holed up at home like everyone else. Like most of us, she's itching to get out and do the things she loves. For Aiza, that's helping people in need and speaking about children's rights. COVID-19 throws a wrench into some of those plans and the operation of Aiza's Teddybear Foundation: part of what makes Aiza's work more human is that she collects clothing and allows people in need to visit her at home and "shop" through her inventory.

"I've really missed working with individuals one-on-one and inviting them into our home so they can have someone to share their stories and experiences with," she says. "Now, people are struggling in a different way. So we try our best to continue to reach out to people. All our donation recipients have my phone number and we stay in contact."

The pandemic has affected non-profits and youth volunteers in lots of ways: from volunteers being less able to do their work because of social distancing to organizations needing to pivot to a digital approach. The Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) addresses these issues by matching students who want to volunteer with organizations who need the help. Students are then able to apply for a grant of $1,000 to $5,000, depending on the number of hours they log. Post-secondary students like Aiza who start their own initiatives are eligible to apply for the CSSG, too.

"For me, I would love any opportunity to advance my education and to continue doing the work that I'm doing," Aiza says, referring to the CSSG and how it might help her work with the the Teddybear Foundation.

Aiza has lots of plans for the foundation and its work to help children. The pandemic slowed some plans, but she's developed new ideas to move the foundation's efforts online. Aiza's newest idea involves a network of giving beyond her home province of Ontario.

"We're planning on creating a system where individuals can package their items based on size and organize them in a little box and reach out to us," she explains. "We'll connect them directly with a family in their area, so it eliminates the whole middleman idea."

Aiza's civics class project sparked her journey and she wants to inspire other young people to take small steps to help others. But how can they find their passion? She has some great words of wisdom for anyone wanting to take those first steps. And if you're interested in the CSSG but not sure what kind of opportunity to apply for, Aiza's advice can help with that, too.

"Dive a little deeper than the passion that first comes to mind-really think about what gets you up in the morning." She says, "What's something that you'd be heartbroken to lose? These are things that would equate to being your passions. When you find the area where all your passions intersect, you realized your life's purpose."

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