This Christmas, Ava Leahey wants every family to be together like hers will be.
But, given the fact that the U.S. still has numerous troops stationed overseas, she knows that’s not a possibility for many.
So instead, she thought she’d provide those troops with a little comfort to remind them of home this holiday season.
The Cicero 10-year-old collected teddy bears, as well as other donations, to send to soldiers in Afghanistan. She sent several boxes of stuffed animals, as well as hygiene items, phone cards and other donations, to several different units on Monday, Dec. 17.
“I just thought since you can hug them and snuggle them at night, it would be a nice idea,” Ava said. “I know there are lots of families that don’t have troops home, so I decided to thank the troops.”
Ava, who has no family members or loved ones in the armed services, came up with the idea on her own, according to her parents, Chris and Heather Leahey, who also have two sons, 7-year-old Ian and 4-year-old Ryan.
“One morning, I came down and they had their Christmas lists out on the counter,” Heather said, “and she’d crossed off her list and written, ‘Bring home the troops.’ Then she wrote, ’20 teddy bears for the troops, because everybody should have someone special with them at Christmas,’ or something like that. So I talked to her about it. I said, ‘Ava, I saw your letter to Santa. That’s really sweet.’ And she said, ‘Well, it’s not going to happen.’ And I said, ‘I’m sure we can get 20 teddy bears to the troops,’ and she said, ‘No, bringing the troops home.’ And I said, ‘No, that’s [probably not] something that’s going to happen.’ But I was really impressed with her selflessness, and I thought maybe we could try to make this happen.”
So Heather reached out through social media, creating an event on Facebook and inviting her friends. She encouraged them to tell their friends about it, and word quickly spread. Heather put a donation box at her place of employment, as did her husband Chris, a teacher at North Syracuse Junior High School. A box was also placed at the North Area YMCA. In just a couple of weeks — Ava’s idea didn’t strike until the middle of December — the family had collected several dozen teddy bears, as well as other assorted donations and $195 that will go towards the cost of shipping everything to Afghanistan.
“It’s been neat coming home every day and finding another box at the door,” Chris said. “We don’t even know where the boxes come from. A lot of people don’t leave names. There’s just a box of teddy bears or a check that’s been sent in the mail. It’s really neat, all the goodwill.”
And that goodwill isn’t just local.
“We’ve had people from Las Vegas send stuff, people from South Carolina have sent money for shipping, people from Maine, New York City — it extends farther than just Cicero,” Heather said.
The donated teddy bears and other goods are headed to a number of different units. The Leaheys are sending one batch to the unit in which one of Ava’s friend’s uncles serves. They also reached out through anysoldier.com, which allows people to connect to soldiers who don’t receive regular correspondence or care packages from home.
Also among the recipients are CPT Ashley Nicolas, a 2009 West Point graduate and Baldwinsville native, and her all-female unit. Nicolas, a former softball player at B’ville and at West Point, has been married for one year; her husband is a naval officer stationed in Washington state.
“Thanks so much for thinking of us,” Nicolas wrote in an e-mail. “This is definitely a tough time to be away. It helps knowing people haven’t forgotten that we are here.”
In addition to the donated goods, the troops will receive handmade cards crafted by Ava’s fifth grade class at Gillette Road Middle School.
Ava, who said she’d like to make the teddy bear collection an annual event, is hopeful that the recipients of the goods will know they’re appreciated back home.
“They can see our appreciation and it might make them feel happy,” she said. “I just thought this might be a nice Christmas gift.”
Chris and Heather Leahey are proud that their daughter has embraced the true spirit of the Christmas season.
“Christmas is more about giving. We can all reach out to find those people that might need — we can all give to other people, to people who are in difficult circumstances,” Chris said. “It’s a great idea, and it enriches our holiday when you feel that you’re giving something to somebody else. And we don’t even know these people, but it’s nice to know we’re making their holidays a little bit brighter.”
“It’s nice that an idea that a 10-year-old had can bring all these other people together to help someone else.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.