WESTERLY, R.I. (WJAR) — A Westerly family has been providing comfort to children who might need a friend during a tough time.
In 2003, Steve Scales said he purchased a MINI Cooper Sport Edition.
"When MINI Coopers were first introduced in the United States, there weren't many of us that we could find and that wanted to ride together," said Scales. "So, in a group I was in, it began as a friendly competition ,13 MINI Coopers from across New England and upstate New York, decided we were going to pack our MINIs with as many toys and whoever had the most would win, and we brought them to the hospital."
Scales said he enjoyed that experience so much 18 years later he still repeats it bi-weekly.
"18 years later we've donated over 23,000 toys to area charities throughout the state of Rhode Island," said Scales. "It's really important to be involved in the community and to give back and this is our way of doing that."
For years, his charity, "MINI's Making A Difference" has partnered with Westerly Hospital to donate hundreds of stuffed animals to provide comfort for children visiting the emergency room, the Smilow Cancer Center where his wife works, and at the Geriatric Psych Department.
"We've had pink flamingos, to big, big teddy bears, to dogs, unicorns, bunnies, whatever we can find to donate we provide," said Scales. "It involves a lot of time and organization and I couldn't do it without the support of my wife and daughter and all the people who volunteer."
MINI's Making a Difference has also partnered with dozens of other organizations over the years including municipal police and fire departments.
The stuffed animals are either donated by family, friends or a private from a corporate donor.
Scales also pays out of pocket for them.
"It's very rewarding to do this, and I think the stuffed animals played a bigger role, especially through COVID," said Scales. "I can't imagine being a child in a stressful situation and now especially you can't read people's expressions and the stuffed animals help break down those walls and apprehension."
That's something Helen Bell, a registered nurse at Westerly Hospital, has witnessed firsthand.
"When the children come in, they're frightened and now because we have COVID, they only see us wear masks and a pair of eyes so to distract them and to make them feel comfortable. We give them one of the beautiful stuffed animals that were donated to us and they immediately grab them and hug them," said Bell. "The fear comes off their face and they feel so much better."
Bell has been an employee of the hospital for 40 years.
For the last 18 years, she's been one of the people who distributes the bears.
"Every single day I come to work. If I'm in triage, I load up with all the animals so that I can give a child to make him comfortable," she said. "Immediately, they just hug the stuffed animal right away and they start to take care of the stuffed animal as if they're the new parent and they forget all about why they're even here."
Bell has a routine.
Every day she goes into an office, loads up the stuffed animals, and distributes them.
She told NBC 10 News she gets just as excited as the children receiving them.
"Immediately, in my mind, I pictured Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus in the North Pole making all these stuffed animals and miraculously dropping them off," said Bell. "I think it's wonderful what Steve and his family does."
"It's very fulfilling to see the hard work from the donors, and everyone is not only appreciative but the comfort it provides is amazing," said Scales. "There’ve been some stories that come back to me over the years and it just comes full circle and makes you realize this really is important to some people."
If you would like to donate to the organization Scales can be reached on Facebook or at minismd.org.