Children deserve the chance to experience joy, comfort and hope, even in the harrowing environment of a hospital bed and especially during the holiday season.
That message continues to hold true for 14-year-old Zach Darner of Bremerton, who with the help of his mother and a legion of other kids, has led a series of toy drives that have impacted the lives of thousands of children in Washington hospitals since 2016.
2023 is expected to be no different in success for the annual Kidzz Helping Kidzz’s Christmas toy drive, an event that began out of an act of kindness in a trying time for the Darner family. Beth Friedman Darner, Zach’s mother, recalled the early health complications that led to lengthy emergency room and hospital visits for Noah, Zach’s little brother. “(Noah) had a kidney problem at birth and so arrived to the care of nephrology. I had never even heard of the profession before,” she explained.
Zach was just seven years old at the time, but he remembers seeing the vulnerable environment his infant brother was in. “It was a lot of him just laying on the hospital bed,” he said. “There were a lot of needles and a lot of scary stuff for a kid, at least. I mean, I kind of knew he was going to be okay, but also, it was just really scary at the time.”
Then came the day that, after a difficult procedure, a staff member of the hospital came in with a box of toys. Zach picked one for himself as well as his brother, a simple gesture that he believed should be shared with other impacted kids.
“That was in 2016, and that year was our first toy drive,” said Beth.
It started as a small ask, the goal being just 50 toys and the promotional work mostly reliant on neighborhood door-to-door visits and elementary classroom presentations. The results were more than either Zach or Beth could have asked for, with 259 toys being delivered to Harrison Hospital and Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital.
The goal was raised to 1,000 toys in 2017, and again, expectations were exceeded. Partnering with Caring Clowns International for sponsorship, the drive concluded with a total of 1,589 toys sent to the two hospitals and a third to Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Noah has since recovered, and as he began to grow, Kidzz Helping Kidzz would as well, becoming its own nonprofit organization. It expanded with a focus on keeping the ideas and inspirations of kids at the forefront began throughout 2018.
“It continued to grow and grow each year, and that’s when we formed our advisory board of youth. That’s when we expanded the vision of the mission to make it youth-led, which is fairly unique,” Beth said.
The board consists, as Beth suggests, of children who bring equally different backgrounds and experiences to the table. They also help develop the organization’s other tasks, such as their monthly partnering with the Bremerton Backpack Brigade.
19-year-old Aaliyah Chandler was one of the first to begin serving for the nonprofit, saying how it has helped develop a number of skills vital to life. “My biggest goal in life is to help people,” she said. “The board builds great strengths like teambuilding and working together, and it allows people to express themselves and help others.”
Another early volunteer to the board was 12-year-old Selah Guy, who says she has always enjoyed helping with the drive and recruiting other friends to join in the mission.“I have never been in a hospital before, but I’ve heard several stories from my friends who have been in the hospital, and it always scared me to think about it,” she said. “I like the idea, then, of knowing I’m helping someone else who might be scared of the hospital by giving them a toy to help them feel better.”
12-year-old Bella Perez, a recent addition to the team, knows exactly how some of those affected kids feel. “It makes me feel really good to help because I was in the hospital for an extended period of time, not just a normal stay. It makes me feel good to be helping kids that I know I can relate to.”
The goal since 2018 has been set at 5,000 toys, and donations have exceeded that amount every year thus far. A recent partnership with St. Michael Medical Center in Silverdale has given the organization adequate space to store its collections. “We used to do all the toy drives here in the house,” Beth said. “We were just piling toys, and they were taking over the different rooms. In 2021, all we had left open was our kitchen table.”
It is to the point where donations in the five figures is certainly feasible if the community is willing to give. “As long as the community continues to give us toys, the hospitals will take as many as we have. So we can continue to brighten the lives of children, and it’s really the community who wants to step up and support this.”
Those looking to donate to the cause can drop a toy off at one of 103 collection boxes set up around Kitsap County until Dec. 15 or can ship a toy to the address provided on the Kidzz Helping Kidzz website. St. Michael and St. Anthony in Gig Harbor are among the hospitals being donated to this year.
“It all ties back to (Noah),” Zach said, the two of them working together for a common cause. “It’s part of honoring not just him, but that moment of realization that serving kids and helping people is just a great thing.”
A map and list of drop-off locations are available at kidzzhelpingkidzz.org.