900 boxes of joy
FOR HER SENIOR PROJECT, Emily Sterner, 17, collected more than 900 gifts for families with sick children.
Boxes, packing tape and Styrofoam peanuts were coming out of the woodwork last week for Emily Sterner, 17, who, with the help of her parents, shipped off more than 900 individually wrapped gifts.
“I didn’t really know how to wrap presents before this,” she said over a cup of cocoa, “Now I know how to.”
The presents are heading to families across the country who have a child afflicted with a chronic or life-threatening disease. The effort was part of Emily’s senior project for Sonoma Valley High School, a project she had to lobby the school to complete.
That’s because her parents, Michael and Laurie Sterner, operate the Butterfly Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting families with sick children. Emily decided to take over its annual “Secret Stocking” campaign to provide holiday gifts for the children as her senior project. But, under school policy, a student’s parent cannot be a project mentor.
“They told her if she wanted to help people, she could knit a sweater,” Laurie Sterner said.
Instead, Emily created a petition and collected more than 500 signatures in support of her effort, and in turn, the school made an exception to its policy. Emily began work in September, contacting more than 50 families the Butterfly Fund supports to ask for a wish list of gifts for each child in the family, not just the ones afflicted by a disease.
“It’s not just about a child with a catastrophic illness, it’s about their brothers and sisters too,” Emily said. “(Disease) affects the whole family.”
After creating a database of every child’s name, age and wish list, Emily got to work figuring out how to find donors for the gifts. She set up Christmas trees at Terri’s Hot Shots and Sonoma Sandbox decorated with hand-made paper stockings that listed each child’s holiday wishes.
“I made two for each child, so I made over 350,” she said.
She also turned to social media and the more than 6,100 “fans” of the Butterfly Fund on Facebook, who were instantly supportive of her project. Every day she would post up to five stockings, and the first person to “claim” a child’s name would agree to buy something from the child’s wish list. Almost all were claimed within hours of the posting.
“A lot of people filled their entire gift list,” Emily said.
She explained that many donors went above and beyond the expected items. For example, one girl asked for an alarm clock, but the donor instead gifted a new iPod with an alarm clock dock.
To protect each family’s privacy, all gifts were shipped to the Sterner household. Emily said about half came wrapped, while she got busy wrapping the other half. In total, Emily received about 750 gifts, not including the gift cards to grocery and department stores that donors sent for the parents. The Sterners also hand-painted an ornament for each family, for a total of more than 900 gifts to be sent to the families.
“Each child got an average of three gifts,” Emily beamed.
For weeks, the entire household looked like a UPS store, with boxes neatly lined along every available surface to keep the packages organized by family. Macy’s donated $1,000 to help with shipping costs, while Valley resident Jeff W. Spencer covered the remaining balance.
All of the packages were shipped off last week, but Emily will get no credit for the 200-plus hours she’s already spent on the project.
Another caveat of the senior project is that the 20-hours of work must be completed during the spring semester, students do not receive credit for work done in the winter.
“I’ll be planning next year’s event,” Emily says of how she’ll spend the 20 hours. “It’s OK, I would have done this even if it wasn’t my senior project.”
When asked what she learned from her work on the “Secret Stocking” project, Emily took a moment to consider the question. “I learned that nobody can stop me from what I want to do,” she smiled.
The Butterfly Fund supports families year-round, and is always looking for donations of cash or gift cards to supply to families. Learn more at thebutterflyfund.org or find it on Facebook.