Ty Warner and Storyteller Children’s Center puts smile on kids’ faces
Throughout the current COVID-19 pandemic, there has been no lack of people affected by the situation.
At the same time, there are also a variety of ways to give people a reason to smile.
Recently the Storyteller Children’s Center, a year-round Santa Barbara therapeutic school serving homeless and disadvantaged toddlers and preschoolers, put a smile on a lot of kids’ faces.
For three days, Executive Director Donna Barranco Fisher and other staff members were handing out goodie bags to the families they support.
Inside the bag was a $100 dollar gift card to go shopping for groceries. That gift card, however, was attached to a much cuter, fluffier object — a stuffed colored bear.
“This bear is important because children love things like stuffed animals, and it’s really an attractive little bear, and it will give them something to hold on to, especially for children who are scared, sometimes just holding on to something provides that security for them,” Ms. Fisher told the News-Press.
The Hope Bear was donated to the Storyteller Children’s Center by local hotelier and toy manufacturer, Ty Warner.
Known for his Beanie Babies, Mr. Warner donated hundreds of Hope Bears in hopes of bringing a bit of joy during such a dark time.
All proceeds from the bear will be donated to the United Way Worldwide fund.
“The world needs hope, and this little bear just might bring us the smile we need right now,” Mr. Warner said in a news release May 12 when the bear was announced.
“This really came out of nowhere for us,” Ms. Fisher recalled.
“I would not have thought about this in normal circumstances, and here comes Ty Warner with this very generous offer for us, and it’s wonderful. It’s nice to know that during these times people can come together and put differences aside and can work toward a common goal, which is helping others.”
The timing also could not have been any better for Ms. Fisher and the Storyteller Children’s Center.
Right before she received the news about the bears, Ms. Fisher had just started a food campaign.
She hoped to give gift cards to the families served by the center.
“Our families are all struggling, and they have food instability, and their housing is not stable. And so during COVID, they’re really at risk,” Ms. Fisher said.
Soon after starting the program, Ms. Fisher spoke with Erinn Lynch, a board member who also works for Blaze, a Santa Barbara public relations firm.
Ms. Lynch approached Ms. Fisher about the generous offer, and suddenly the idea to combine both gifts came together.
“I thought about tying the gift cards onto the Hope Bears. That way, each child gets a little soft cuddly stuffed animal right now to find comfort with and the families will be able to buy food,” Ms. Fisher said.
Then, when the day came, it was as expected. Families were happy. Parents had a little extra spending money to try to feed their loved ones, while the kids had a small and cute bear to give them hope.
“Children can usually attach themselves to a beloved object that makes them feel secure, and we hope this provides them with that — something they can literally hold onto,” Ms. Fisher said.
Throughout her time at the Storyteller’s Children Center, Ms. Fisher has helped hundreds of disadvantaged students.
During the last five years as executive director, Ms. Fisher has expanded the mental health and trauma support for students, increased teachers’ salaries and continued education hours, created and formalized behavioral intervention plans, and increased individual and grant donations.
Ms. Fisher feels good about those accomplishments as she prepares to retire at the end of July at the age of 60.
“You don’t go into this line of work to become rich financially. You come into this line of work because you want to effectuate change for people who may not have those opportunities, and I have never in my 30 years of being in this profession ever worked with teachers and staff administrators who are just tirelessly working to support our children and families,” Ms. Fisher said. “I’ve never worked with a group of people so dedicated and motivated my entire professional career, and I think that’s something else that sets us apart from a lot of other places.”
Living in Santa Barbara, many people usually think of the wealth that exists in the community, but Ms. Fisher said there is also a lot of poverty.
While helping the adults is important, so too is being there for the youth, and that’s where Storyteller Children’s Center shines.
Ms. Fisher talked about a study done by Kaiser Permanente in which nearly 17,000 Caucasian, mostly college educated adults were interviewed with questions about childhood.
“What it found is if these things happened to you as a child and you did not have an intervention early on, you ran a higher risk of having obesity, you ran a higher risk of having diabetes, you ran a higher risk of heart disease,” she said. “Because of that, we know that the work that we do is crucial because we are still working with children while their brains are malleable. We can actually rewire those parts of the brain that did not develop, and because of our interventions, we are able to give children a fighting chance to have a successful life, a more normal life.”
And that’s how Storyteller Children’s Center is more than a storytelling site. It actually is a therapy preschool for at-risk students, and ultimately, the goal is for a story with a happy ending for the children.
“We provide very encompassing support. If a child needs clothing we provide clothing. If a child needs speech and language therapy we provide, so we’re a very saturated type of agency where we provide a lot,” Ms. Fisher said.
All of Storyteller’s Children’s Center’s services are free.
For Ms. Fisher, the most important thing she and her staff can do for the families, is being there and establishing a trusting relationship.
“It’s hard to trust people, and we have been really good at being able to do that so our families don’t feel that stigma as much because they recognize the support that we’re providing. They know they can come to us, and we don’t judge,” Ms. Fisher said.
During the pandemic, tough times have limited the Children’s Center’s ability to help. Still, Ms. Fisher is doing everything she can from a communication standpoint, from sending out opportunities for free food to sending out opportunities for free refurbished laptops.
And, of course, providing hope in any shape or form, including the shape of a small bear.
“I go home to a house every night, where I open the refrigerator door if I want something to drink or eat, so to know that I can help someone who may not have that type of fortune is amazing. To know that I know that they’re going to go around and buy food is amazingly fulfilling. It’s unbelievable,” Ms. Fisher said.
“And to also know that our children have something to hold on to at night, to feel secure is also so rewarding.”