For this Christmas, 9-year-old Madelyn Huffman wanted lots of toys – for other kids.
She directed her request not to the North Pole, but to about 200 of her neighbors.
“Please help me spread CHRISTMAS Joy @ Levine Children’s Hospital,” read Madelyn’s hand-drawn flier, which she placed in mailboxes all over the Kingsbridge neighborhood in Charlotte’s Steele Creek area.
The neighbors responded: All told, the fourth-grader at River Gate Elementary collected nearly 100 toys – dolls, mini-cars, games.
And on Christmas morning, when Christians celebrate God’s gift of an infant who would grow up to be a savior, the toys Madelyn and her family delivered to the hospital will be among the gifts the young patients find crowding their beds when they wake up.
Imagining the smiles on these kids’ faces, Madelyn says, will brighten her own holiday.
“I just like kids getting joy,” she said. “At our house, we get a lot of presents, but maybe not a lot of the kids in the hospital do.”
During her recent interview with the Observer, Madelyn wore a T-shirt that said it all for her. It read: “Kindness Begins With Me.”
Why is giving to others so important to her?
“If it makes someone else happy,” she said, “it makes me happy.”
What makes others happy – from Madelyn’s neighbors to her own family to the staffers at Levine Children’s Hospital – is that there are some children out there who would rather give than receive.
John Redmond lives on Madelyn’s street, but didn’t know her or her family – mom Becky, dad Cody and 6-year-old brother Carson. Still, he was pleased to answer Madelyn’s appeal by buying and dropping off two toys, one for a girl, one for a boy.
“We read constantly about bad things in the world, but here’s a tremendous thing,” said Redmond, a retirement counselor. “For someone that young to show such character and charity and take the time to do something for someone else without expecting anything in return – it just really impressed me.”
Madelyn appears to be part of a trend of children giving to other children, said Carrie Keuten, who’s in charge of taking in donations and coordinating events for patients and their families at Levine Children’s Hospital.
“This year, it’s exploding,” Keuten said of the instances of kids who have started GoFundMe campaigns or launched annual traditions of collecting toys because they wanted to brighten the holidays for children too sick to celebrate at home.
Keuten has been taking donations for the hospital from one 12-year-old boy since he was 5. The reason for his generosity: He’d had a sibling who started life in a neo-natal care unit.
“I get to hear the personal connections and the reasons why,” Keuten said. “I wish I could bottle up their kindness and caring and compassion and share it with people. This would be a better world ...”
And though many of the donated toys will go to children on Christmas Day, the hospital always keeps some of them for kids admitted at other times in the year.
“The gifts we receive at Christmas sustain us into the new year,” Keuten said. “Kids are going to come in the day after Christmas and on New Year’s. We like to share with children all year long.”
‘You are an angel’
Madelyn’s toy drive this Christmas season was her second. In 2016, when she was 8, she wanted to give to Toys for Tots, a program run by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.
That made perfect sense: Madelyn’s dad is an ex-Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, he had missed her birth – at Camp Lejeune, the Marine base in Jacksonville, N.C. – because he was overseas. He’s now an analyst at Bank of America.
Weeks before Christmas 2016, Madelyn put a homemade flier in about 70 mailboxes and collected lots of toys. But she missed the Toys for Tots deadline. So Madelyn and her elves – aka her family – donated the toys to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, which made sure they got to kids in need.
This year, Madelyn & Co. learned from last year: They started earlier, reached out to even more neighbors, decided who would get the toys and called Levine Children’s Hospital to make sure they met its deadline.
Why the hospital?
Madelyn says she was inspired by the case of Jacob Thompson, a 9-year-old boy from Maine who was sick with cancer – and loved penguins. His story went viral on the internet, and thousands of strangers – including Madelyn and her family – helped give him an early Christmas by sending him all things penguin.
“He was in the hospital,” Madelyn said. “So we sent him a penguin hat and a penguin stuffed animal.”
Jacob died in November 2016, but not before enjoying the gifts and celebrating Christmas with his family, who wrote this message on a Facebook page they used to chart his journey:
“Each and every person who sent Jacob a Christmas card, a gift, a Facebook message or video, or a prayer made a difference in the final days of his life. You brought Jacob joy, and you brought us all optimism for the future. Thank you for taking the time, and taking an interest in our sweet boy’s journey. Sadly, there are many others like him that we hope you will continue to help.”
Madelyn decided she wanted to help some of those “many others” by collecting toys for kids in the hospital in Charlotte.
Again, the neighbors responded with everything from Baby Alive dolls to Ninja Turtle games.
The neighborhood’s mail carrier contributed money for Madelyn and her mom, Becky, to go buy more toys. Becky’s workplace – she’s an assistant to a financial adviser – also gave toys.
One neighbor also sent Madelyn an angel ornament, now hanging on the Huffmans’ Christmas tree, along with a note.
“Dear Madelyn,” it read, “thank you for collecting toys for other kids. This angel is to remind you to keep that light shining. You are an angel. Thanks for sharing your heart. Blessings to you.”
But Madelyn’s biggest fan may be her mother. She calls her daughter “Miss Compassionate” and says her pride in her little girl “makes my heart happy.”
“Anybody who knows her knows that she would do anything for anybody to make them happy,” Madelyn’s mom said. “You see it in her – she tears up if there’s something sad, like the homeless people on the side of the road. ‘What can we do to help them out?’ And she sticks by her friends ... boy, girl, older, younger. It doesn’t matter. She’s got a heart of gold.”
‘Kindness Begins With Me’
Madelyn gets excited about other things, too. She likes math, is looking forward to being a cheerleader for a youth football team next year, and she loves the family’s two dogs, Winston and Quincy, both gregarious Labs.
On this Christmas, she’ll spend time with her extended family and celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus – the Huffmans attend Good Shepherd United Methodist Church.
But this 9-year-old from Charlotte, who says she wants to be a teacher when she grows up, definitely plans to continue her commitment to other children.
Madelyn is already thinking about next Christmas, when she can help even more children. And she hopes other kids – from 1 to 92, as the song says – will get in on the giving.
“I’m just trying to inspire other people to do the same,” she said, “so other kids can have more joy.”