- By Pamela Dillon Contributing Writer
Oakwood eighth-graders Cecille Figueroa and Dasha Penas-Johnson started Warm Hugs — Blankets With Love 18 months ago after noticing children living in difficult conditions. They started collecting blankets for Hispanic children. The first partial year they garnered 300 “warm hugs,” plus $1,000 in donations.
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Recently Harman School and Smith Elementary in Oakwood collected more than 100 blankets. The young students were told they could wear pajamas to school for a $1 donation to the charity. Those children helped the girls collect over 600 blankets this past year, with funds for packing and distribution. The pair have received $6,000 in donations this past year.
“The purpose [is to] symbolically give a warm hug through a cozy blanket, that will not only keep [Hispanic children] warm but will make them feel loved,” as stated on their Facebook page.
Figueroa was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Dayton with her family when she was 6 years old. Penas-Johnson’s dad, Francisco Penas, is from Segovia, Spain. She was born in Ohio. Their mission is to provide blankets to Hispanic immigrant children in the Miami Valley area who lack basic necessities.
“The support we have received from our community, particularly our schools, has been amazing. To know the schools we once attended wanted to do something to help us was a great feeling,” said Figueroa, 14. “Growing up going to Smith and Harman, we remember how we were encouraged to help and have empathy toward others. We learned very strong values in the ‘Harmanize’ and GRIT programs that we apply today.”
Figueroa and her mother, Lourdes Narvaez Soto, had the initial idea for the project a year and a half ago. It got off the ground as a nonprofit about six months after that.
“Cecille and I have worked on this together. Right away when they came to me [with the idea] I was overjoyed to join,” said Penas-Johnson, 14. “Together we focused on [contacting] churches for how many blankets they needed in kid-friendly designs.”
The list of local churches: St. John the Baptist Church, Tipp City; St. Mary’s Church, Dayton; St. Teresa Church, New Carlisle; St. Patrick Church, Troy; and Sacred Heart Church, New Carlisle. The girls will attend the various Sunday services when they bring the blankets.
In addition to churches, they’ve distributed blankets to the Del Puenete Tutoring Center in Dayton, Springfield City School District, Project Women in Springfield, and Su Casa in Cincinnati. They’ve expanded their reach quite a bit this year.
“We have an alliance with Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley at the border in Texas. When the children cross the border they stay at temporary housing,” said Penas-Johnson. It is very cold inside. They come in with short sleeves, T-shirts and shorts, so they’re not prepared for it.”
Besides the charity, Penas-Johnson is also busy with cheerleading, basketball and track at Oakwood Junior High. She and Figueroa have been friends for three years.
Figueroa is also a cheerleader and ran track this year. She’s also an equestrian who’s been riding horses for the past 10 years.
“I really just want to really let other kids know if they have an idea to help others, go for it and don’t hold back,” said Penas-Johnson. “As long as you have that good intention it will lead to a good outcome.”
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