Basketballs. Board games. Play trucks and painting kits. Stuffed animals. Dolls. Action figures.
Around November, Taylor Goodman-Leong’s home in Westford, Massachusetts, starts to fill up with toys.
It’s been that way since 2005, when she and her family launched an annual holiday gift drive to bring smiles to children’s faces at hospitals and shelters across New England.
“In the winter, our garage is filled with toys and our dining room is filled with toys and wrapping paper and everything,” says Goodman-Leong, now a second-year student in the master’s program at the Boston College School of Social Work.
Over the past 18 years, she estimates that her toy drive has benefited more than 40,000 children. This past holiday season, she says she helped distribute over 1,500 toys valued at $40,000.
“I’m still kind of surprised sometimes to see how far it’s grown,” she says. “I think that’s really great and I’m glad that we’ve been able to do this for so long.”
Goodman-Leong created the toy drive to honor the memory of her best friend, Erika, who died of brain cancer at age 7. The BFFs liked to make homemade gifts for each other, Goodman-Leong recalls, and often traded stuffed animals.
They planned to donate toys to kids at the hospital where Erika was staying after she got sick, but Erika died before that vision came to fruition. Nonetheless, Goodman-Leong took the idea and ran with it, founding a nonprofit called For the Love of Erika to deliver presents to kids who need them most.
Goodman-Leong works with Westford Public Schools to organize toy drives each holiday season. After she collects the toys, she teams up with her mom and two younger sisters to wrap and distribute the gifts to children at hospitals and shelters, including Lawrence General Hospital, Lowell General Hospital, and Southern New Hampshire Medical Center. Goodman-Leong has also donated gifts to the Department of Children and Families in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, brightening the holiday season for children served by DCF.
One of her favorite parts of the process is filling her Honda Fit with toys from students in Westford, who typically help her load her car with the gifts. As she puts it, “I get a little bit of an adrenaline rush, just the excitement of seeing all the toys that we’re packing and knowing that the community is coming together to help.”
Goodman-Leong says her experience as founding director of the toy drive is one factor that drew her to social work, noting that meeting a family living in a homeless shelter for a year inspired her to choose to study in the Children, Youth, and Families field of practice at BCSSW. She recently applied for a fellowship from a nonprofit in Boston that focuses on improving children’s mental health, and her long-term professional goal is to work with kids who have been adopted.
But For the Love of Erika isn’t going anywhere—and Goodman-Leong plans to be part of the toy drive for years to come. She even met with Assistant Professor Cal Halvorsen to talk about expanding the nonprofit to include resources and activities for the children it serves.
“Just seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces is what makes this really special,” she says.