The coronavirus pandemic has impacted schools, businesses and social life all together.
This can leave people feeling helpless, but Cindy Cosenzo, owner of Hillsboro-based consulting business Age Celebration, wanted to do something special for both the students stuck at home and the small businesses suffering because of the virus.
Michelle Smith has owned Piccolo Mondo Toys in downtown Hillsboro since 2017. She said she has never seen something impact businesses to this extent in her lifetime. Her staff is working around the clock to adapt to the changing circumstances, but they long for the days of normalcy.
"I was striving to be a neighborhood toy store and have an experience that kids and parents could come in, have these memorable, nostalgic toy store experiences," said Smith. "That's what our advantage over internet shopping and big stores. When all of that goes away, then what do you do?"
So the toy store owner looked to her community in a time of uncertainty.
That's when the Surprise Activity Bags Project was born.
Through Piccolo Mondo, people can purchase $20 activity bags online for Hillsboro elementary school students who may not have access to activities at home.
"It makes it very tangible for people who want to help out their community," said Cosenzo. "Everyone's feeling the desire to help, and sometimes people don't quite know how to do it."
Smith has a friend who owns a toy store in Buffalo, New York, and she said she got the idea for the "activity bags" there. Smith then reached out to Cosenzo because of her community involvement.
Smith also spoke to her vendors about the idea. They were happy to donate extra materials, such as workbooks, colored pencils and stickers.
"I'm trying to (include) age-appropriate games for children ages 6 to 10 — grade school age," explained Smith. "Some will have card games, dice games … and each bag is going to be based on what my inventory is. 'Mad Libs' are kind of a popular item. There's also a couple of little toys and clay that kids can work on while they're home."
Smith said Eastwood Elementary School requested 25 bags for students in need — but with an outpouring of generosity from the community, 37 bags were put together for the families to pick up.
"A couple of people bought five bags, which is very generous and nice," Smith added. "It's keeping my employees working. I have a five-person staff at Hillsboro that need the income. And instead of having to lay anybody off, I've been able to keep them going by trying to be creative with every little gift bag."
Piccolo Mondo closed its doors to the public on March 16, which was days before Gov. Kate Brown's stay-at-home order. Smith made the decision because it wasn't safe for customers or the children that gathered, she said.
The store now offers curbside pick-up, delivery, literal window-shopping and FaceTime shopping.
"It makes me really almost cry," said Smith about the activity bags initiative. "I get very emotional when I think about it. It's a hard time. The kids that we're giving these bags to are the ones that need it the most."
For Eastwood Elementary, the bags couldn't have come at a better time, said Lindsay Garcia, the school's principal.
A Title I school, Eastwood Elementary is among Hillsboro's poorest.
The bags will be sent home with families who participate in Eastwood's weekly food pantry program.
"I'm going to surprise the families with (an) extra-special activity bag, along with their food that they're going to pick up," Garcia said.
She added, "I know that any kind of support like this, with extra activities and toys for the kids while they're at home, will be amazing for all of our families."
The school is following strict protocols to limit the spread of COVID-19 by staying at least 6 feet apart from families and only allowing curbside pick-up.
Though social distancing is necessary, Garcia hopes that the bags can bring a smile to the students missing their friends and teachers at school.
"The kids will feel really special that our community members and our business owners are thinking about them," she said. "It creates this special feeling that we're all in this together."
As for Cosenzo and Smith, they're not finished with their project just yet.
People can now purchase $20 bags through Piccolo Mondo's website for Mooberry Elementary School students.
For more information, visit piccolomondotoys.com and search for "MOOBERRY20."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.