SARASOTA, FL – Earlier this year, fifth-grader Matthew Cook and third-grader Joshua Cook were driving home from Joshua’s birthday party; Matthew looked into the back of the car and saw at least 15 presents stacked up. When he turned around, he saw a homeless man on the street. While the family stopped to give the man $5 and a granola bar, the study in contrasts – the overabundance of gifts and the man with, literally, nothing – stuck with Matthew. Especially when it turned out that some of Joshua’s gifts were duplicates.
The experience moved the brothers to donate the duplicate presents to charity – but they wanted to do more. After investigating resources in the community, they eventually met Ellen McLaughlin, the YMCA program director of the School House Link (the school district’s official homeless liaison). Matthew and Joshua told McLaughlin what they wanted to do, McLaughlin mentioned she had a closet where she keeps items for the homeless children and where presents could be stored, and The Birthday Closet was born.
Just three weeks ago, a GoFundMe account was launched so that toys could be purchased to fill The Birthday Closet; nearly $900 has already been raised. The brothers, their mother, and McLaughlin used the funds on April 24 to buy gifts at the Walmart on Cattlemen Road in Sarasota; while they were there, word spread and a store manager contributed a $50 Walmart gift card to the cause.
Matthew and Joshua attend the Hershorin Schiff Community School, where the responsibility to care for others is as ingrained into the curriculum as math, reading or history. They are immersed in the Jewish values of menschlichkeit (kindness) and tikkun olam (repairing the world); students are engaged in a multitude of community service projects over the course of a school year.
Of course, charity is well learned at home, through the example set by parents and caretakers. “When I was little and we lived in Maryland, my mom and I would make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, take granola bars and a bottle of water, and drive throughout the city and hand out bagged lunches to homeless people in tents,” Matthew said. “My parents have made sure that I understood that we were all equal as human beings and, no matter what our situations individually were, our purpose should always be to look out for one another. If I see a person who is hungry and I have food, I need to share it.”
Their mother can’t emphasize enough the culture of kindness and compassion that exists at Community Day School. “My sons have been involved in several Community Day School charity-driven projects, such as collecting animal food to provide to the animal shelters as well as my oldest son’s routine visits and making friends with senior citizens at the Kobernick House [Aviva: A Center for Senior Life] facility,” said proud parent Liz Cook. “I have always taught the boys to appreciate their family and friends and what they have. They both very clearly understand that there are children in our world that are not so lucky.”
The plan is for the boys to collect toys indefinitely and, at interval times throughout the year, transfer the gifts to the YMCA Birthday Closet. The GoFundMe campaign has a goal of $5,500 – those funds will be used periodically to buy toys to fill the closet. The community is encouraged to contribute at gofundme.com/birthday-closet-gifts-for-kids.
“All of us at Community Day School are so proud of Matthew and Joshua not just for caring about others but coming up with a creative solution for helping others,” said Community Day School head of school Dan Ceaser. “They have taken core principles of our school – solving problems through project-based efforts, working in partnership with others, and having compassion for those who are less fortunate – and done something beautiful for children who have little to smile about in their lives.”
Sponsoring organizations include the Sarasota YMCA and YMCA South, Community Day School, and the UPS Store on Clark Road. For more information about Community Day School, call (941) 552-2770 or go to CommunityDay.org.
About Hershorin Schiff Community Day School
The mission of the Hershorin Schiff Community Day School, which serves students in preschool through eighth grade, is to impact the world by creating a community where children of all faiths demonstrate integrity (tzedek), academic excellence (limud), and a desire to improve the world (tikkun olam). Community Day offers a rigorous, project-based academic program in a diverse and vibrant learning environment rooted in the Jewish values of honesty, integrity, mutual trust and respect. For more information, visit the website at communityday.org or call (941) 552-2770.