Editorial: Don’t forget teens at the toy drive

It’s easy to focus on little kids, but older youth could really use a boost this year.|

The pandemic hasn’t been easy on anyone — teachers, parents, employers, essential workers, minority communities and so many others have suffered in this time of endless and unexpected challenges. But let’s take a minute to talk about teenagers.

There’s something magical about those years between childhood and adulthood, when we have just enough freedom to explore life’s lessons on our own, but just enough oversight to keep us safe (hopefully). Movies about high school, from “The Breakfast Club” to “Clueless” to “Book Smart,” continue to resonate with adult audiences. We all seem to have those stories of sneaking out to meet a paramour, or trying to cover the smell of alcohol on the breath. We look back on those years through the rose-colored tint of nostalgia.

Going to school dances, cheering on the home team from the sidelines, stressing about finals and searching for the next great party are shared adolescent experiences that make that time in our lives so unique. But our teens missed many of those most joyful of experiences in the pandemic — thousands didn’t get to walk across the stage at graduation, or start high school in crowded hallways surrounded by peers, or attend prom with their first love.

“They know they’re missing out,” said Marta Mertens, parents of two teens. “They know they won’t get this time back.”

The Mertens, like so many other families, were rocked by COVID. She and her husband were laid off, the bills and rent payments piled up, creating a financial chasm from which they are still trying to pull themselves out. Facing an extra lean Christmas last year, they signed up for a toy drive, hoping to bring something special to their kids.

“Everyone says, ‘Don’t worry about gifts,’ but that’s so hard when all their friends get new phones and video games,” Mertens said.

Each of her children received a gift card, allowing them to pick out just what they wanted. It made a huge difference, Mertens said, but it almost didn’t happen.

While the toy drive was overloaded with stuffed animals, baby toys and gifts for little kids, there were only a few soccer balls and baseball bats designated for teens. Luckily, an anonymous donor showed up with a pile of gift cards to cover the requests from older kids.

It’s a tough age group to shop for — they’ve grown out of those cute little toys people love to donate. Their needs are more practical than precious, as teens most often ask for clothing and gift cards. For whatever reason, those requests are more likely to go overlooked by donors.

Toy drives that include teens can also be tricky to find, many of the biggest events in Sonoma Valley are focused on younger kids. Sonoma County’s Secret Santa’s Adopt-a-Heart covers the county and provides gifts for anyone in need, from babies to senior citizens. Flip through the hearts, which each represent a Christmas wish, and you’ll find 13-year-old Sandie’s request for a warm hoodie sweatshirt, or 16-year-old Leonel’s desire for a new black backpack. There are hundreds of needs for every size budget, find them all at secretsantanow.org/AdoptHeart/AdoptFromHome.

Teens in need deserve a boost this season — they are still catching up, socially and academically, with the many moments they lost to COVID. While a new pair of sneakers can’t fix that longing, it can offer a much-needed moment of joy.

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