WHEN THE RAIN-SWOLLEN RED RIVER rose and flooded the city of Grand Forks, N.Dak., last April, it left behind a tortured landscape of ruined homes and ravaged lives, and sent hundreds of families to the local Red Cross center. For relief volunteer Bob Bowerman, who flew in for three weeks before returning to his home in Raleigh, N.C., the most indelible memory was of the children. Often dazed and traumatized when they arrived at the center, the kids were each presented with a toy, usually a stuffed animal, and the effect was electric.

"You'd hand them a toy and their eyes would light up," Bowerman recalls. "The toys were like a big hug. It was something to see."

At the time, Bowerman had no idea where the toys—in all, some 8,000 teddy bears, Barbie dolls and Barneys—had come from. It was only months later that he learned they had been sent by an organization called Operation Toy Box in Wake Forest, N.C., just 30 minutes from his home.

More remarkable was the news that the founder and guiding spirit of this grassroots group was a teenage girl. Christy Leigh Sanderson, an 18-year-old high school senior, and her army of 40-odd volunteers had gathered toys from boxes placed in schools, fire departments, stores—even a funeral home—and shipped them west in a donated truck. What's more, Sanderson was by then already a veteran of long-distance disaster relief: At 16 she had launched Operation Toy Box in September 1995, in response to the devastation of the Virgin Islands by Hurricane Marilyn.

"I never really watched the news much, but my mother called out, 'You've got to see this,' " recalls Sanderson, now a freshman at Raleigh's Meredith College. "Suddenly they showed this little boy, maybe 6 years old, blowing a whistle and pushing a cart with a toy truck in it. And the little boy turned around to the camera and smiled this big smile. Well, my heart just kind of dropped—I mean, to think a child could be smiling through such turmoil and devastation. How was it possible? How could it be? I would have been sitting in my mother's lap crying my heart out."

Having seen how a simple toy could bring a boy such incongruous happiness, Sanderson had an epiphany. The only child of parents who divorced when she was 4—her father, Charles, who now owns a Tennessee trucking business, sees her about twice a year—Christy cherished the silent devotion of her inanimate confidants. "I always spent a lot of time playing in my room with my baby dolls and teddy bears," she remembers. "I have one bear named Charles, after my father, that has been with me for 14 years and knows everything—I mean, everything. I would never give Charles away in a million years."

But on that September day two years ago, Sanderson decreed the rest of her menagerie expendable. "I called out to my mother and told her I was packing up my animals and sending them to the Virgin Islands," she says. "She laughed and said, 'You can't just do that.' " Replied Christy: "Watch me." The next day she sat on her living room floor with six friends and brainstormed ways to collect used toys and transport them to the Caribbean. "One of the guys came up with the name," Sanderson recalls. "Operation Toy Box."

She tried rallying her high school to the cause, but the response was lukewarm. Then, at her mother's suggestion, she wrote to Tom Smith, the CEO of the Food Lion supermarket chain, and within a month collection boxes were placed in 28 stores in Wake County. Sanderson and her friends collected more than 6,000 toys, and both sets of her grandparents and several great-aunts came from Tennessee to spend days washing and patching stuffed animals. "The toys we sent," she says, "were all toys we knew we'd be happy to receive ourselves."

Through the intervention of then U.S. Congressman Fred Heineman, US Air agreed to fly the toys to St. Thomas. TV crews were on the scene as Sanderson and her friends loaded 76 boxes onto an airport luggage carrier. "I was so happy to see the toys going," she says, "so happy that an idea of mine had gotten all this support."

But the send-off also caused an unexpected emotional letdown. "Just started bawling, right on television," she says. "I had been eating, breathing and sleeping Operation Toy Box, and I had a feeling of 'Now what?' "

The answer came a few weeks later, in a letter from Elliott Thomas, Roman Catholic bishop of the Virgin Islands, who had overseen the distribution of the toys. Into his devastated region came "Santa Claus in the person of Christy Leigh Sanderson!" he wrote. "Thank you so much for caring about our little angels"

Overwhelmed, Sanderson resolved to keep her project alive. After making a radio appeal, she was given the use of an abandoned building and supplies for bins and shelving. By the time of the North Dakota floods, her inventory was back to thousands of toys.

"Christy has no fear," says Teresa Wessing, director of community development for the Raleigh Red Cross. "She doesn't see stumbling blocks or barricades. She just does what needs to be done."

Sanderson's empathy with children under stress has roots in her own peripatetic childhood. Born in Tennessee, she moved with her parents to Mississippi. After they split, she and her mother moved to California and then Raleigh, where Carol, 50, is associate director of financial aid at Meredith College. "All my life," says Christy, "I've always thought that I'm, well, less fortunate than everyone else, because my parents were divorced since I was little, and I live in a mobile home and we have no money and all."

That perception, obviously, has been tempered by what she has seen of deprivation elsewhere and by the visible joy of the children she has helped. Sanderson, who has just won nonprofit tax status for her Operation Toy Box, is bubbling over with plans. Next, she wants to put a box of toys in every Red Cross chapter in North Carolina, ready to be opened whenever there's a disaster. "To tell you the truth," she says, "I feel like the richest person in the world. Those smiles are everything to me. Everything."

RICHARD JEROME
GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT in Raleigh

  • Contributors:
  • Gail Cameron Wescott.