LEOMINSTER, Mass. – Noriah Still held a stuffed duck with an orange beak that looked a little worn and old, but she turned it in her hands casually, with the familiarity of an old friend.
“I’ve had him forever,” she said.
Noriah, 10, has more than 1,200 stuffed animals, but the duck holds a special place in her heart.
A worker at the state Department of Children and Families gave her the toy to comfort her while she was in foster care, waiting to meet her prospective parents, Mike and Rina Still.
“She had nothing, so her case worker gave her a little something to hang onto before she met us,” Mike Still said.
That was about five years ago, and as Noriah has grown, the Stills have talked to her about the importance of charitable work.
Noriah has a forever family now but still feels a kinship to the children in foster care — and a little memory of the loneliness.
Children can travel from foster home to foster home over the course of a month.
So when Noriah learned that as a fifth-grader at Fall Brook Elementary, there is a requirement for community service, she hit on the idea of collecting stuffed toys for children in foster care.
Noriah put out the word to friends and family about a month ago, asking for used stuffed toy bears, but it quickly morphed into any toy animal.
“I set up an account on Facebook saying, ‘We’re collecting stuffed animals for foster kids,’ ” Noriah said.
Mike Still also collected the toys at Ron Bouchard’s in Lancaster, where he works part time in the IT department when he’s not working as a vocational tutor at the Center for Technical Education innovation in Leominster.
Rina Still collected at Monster.com in Maynard, where she works.
“We got a lot more than we ever expected to,” Mike Still said. “We expected people to give us one or two, and one lady gave us over 400 bears.”
Many of the toys are new, but Noriah also collected used toys, so she spent a recent weekend cleaning them and spraying them down with Febreze.
Mike Still has a Dodge 2500 pickup truck and an 18-foot trailer, but even they are not enough to transport all the toys, so the Department of Children and Families has agreed to pick up the toys so they can distribute them from its Worcester offices.
DCF spokeswoman Cayenne Isaksen could not immediately confirm the donation of toys but was complimentary of Noriah’s proposal.
“Obviously, the department is grateful of the community and of anybody working to support our kids,” Isaksen said. “Donations like this … help augment our DCF Kids Fund.”
The fund is used to buy foster children such items as backpacks and personal items as well as send them to camp, get tutoring or even attend an occasional dance class.