Despite their fairly modest means, Robin Maynard and her husband, Kevin, were passionate about giving to charity. But writing checks just wasn't fulfilling. "We didn't know if it was making a difference," says Robin, 37. Then one day she visited a friend who ran a soup kitchen and she noticed a shelf set aside for bake mix so needy parents could make birthday cakes for their kids. It struck Robin that if a family couldn't afford a cake, they certainly couldn't afford a gift—so she went home and started making up gift bags of toys for kids.
"We dropped off the first bag on a Sunday night," recalls Maynard, a public relations assistant. (Kevin, 48, is a machinist who is on disability for a back injury.) "The next day I got a call from the [soup kitchen] operator. She said the woman who received the bag was in tears, she was so excited about the gifts." That was 1993. The next year, after burning through $5,000 of their savings, the Maynards formed a nonprofit, Cheerful Givers, soliciting corporate donations and recruiting volunteers to buy, bag and deliver. Ten years later the group has distributed more than 100,000 bags to shelters, accounting for $1 million in stuffed animals, dolls and candy.
Their work is anonymous so children can believe their parents bought the gifts. "It would be impossible for many families to pull off a birthday without Cheerful Givers," says Margaret Reindl of the Community Action Council of Lakeville, Minn. For the Maynards, it sure beats signing checks. "In a perfect world, all families would be able to afford gifts for their kids," says Robin. "Until then we'll put together the bags."
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