Eighth-grade Oakwood schools students Dasha Penas-Johnson (left) and Cecille Figueroa Narvaez created Warm Hugs to provide free blankets to Hispanic children who are adjusting to life in a new country. CONTRIBUTED

Oakwood students extend hugs with blankets to immigrant children

Two years ago Oakwood Junior High School students Cecille Figueroa Narvaez, a native of Puerto Rico, and Dasha Penas-Johnson, who is half Spanish, launched Warm Hugs to provide blankets to Hispanic children in need in the Miami Valley area. Today, that effort has expanded to Rio Grande Valley, Texas, through an alliance with Catholic Charities.

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Cecille said, “Our goal is to keep them warm and send them a symbol of love, hope and perseverance. Every time they use the blanket, we want them to feel a warm hug from us.”

Recently, the students opened a fund through The Dayton Foundation to further facilitate their fundraising efforts.

Q: Why did you decide to start Warm Hugs?

Cecille: I have always been interested in helping other people, especially children. One day my mother, who works in a school district assisting the Hispanic community, told me about several students who had arrived by themselves from Central America. One detail the minors all shared was about waiting in the detention center — they were cold, very cold. That shocked me, and I felt terrible knowing they experienced cold so bad they called the detention center “la hielera” — the freezer. I felt a responsibility to do something.

My mom and I started brainstorming ideas on how to help when we came up with this plan of providing blankets to Hispanic children in need. I remembered how I struggled to get used to the colder weather when I moved to Ohio and how a warm blanket comforted me. My best friend, Dasha, got involved because she had the same desire to help.

Q: What has been the response from children who have received your blankets?

Dasha: The response has been absolutely amazing. They get incredibly happy over something as simple as a blanket, which most people take for granted. At our blanket distribution on Three Kings Day, one boy was in line to collect a present and a Warm Hugs blanket. After he got his present, he ran over to our table to get his blanket. His face lit up. He started jumping up to see which blanket he wanted then left with the biggest smile.

Q: How do you raise funds and how much have you raised to date?

Dasha: Last year, we started by spreading the word and asking our friends and family to donate. We were able to collect over 350 blankets. This winter our goal is to donate 800 blankets. We’ve started to recruit local businesses and schools to help our cause. Currently, we have collected 420 blankets and have raised over $2,000, however, we would like to surpass our goal because there are a lot of people in need.

Cecille: We couldn’t do this without the many volunteers who help to raise money and get blankets. Recently, Velouria, a 9-year-old girl who lives in Springboro, raised nearly $200 and got 200 blankets from hosting a hot chocolate stand. The National Business Honor Academy group at Oakwood High School and Harman and Smith Elementary Schools in Oakwood also will be holding blanket drives and raising funds as well as Springboro School District.

Q: What has influenced you in your desire to help others?

Cecille: I have very kind and supportive parents, who have instilled in me a love for our neighbors and the need to be compassionate, empathetic and helpful toward others. When I volunteered in Springfield City Schools, some kids shared with me their stories about coming to the United States, learning a new language, starting school and getting used to the winter weather. These stories made me realize that I’m very fortunate. Although my resources are limited, I can help in a direct and simple way by providing a warm hug through a cozy blanket.

Dasha: I have grown up going to church, and I was taught to give to those in need. My family also loves to travel and see new things. For me, I most remember the people in new places. It’s opened my eyes to the world and the reality that not everyone lives like us. Seeing people on the streets or children asking for money broke my heart. I knew I really wanted to do something more with my life, focusing more on others and less on myself.

Q: Why did you decide to open a charitable fund, and how can others help?

Dasha: Cecille’s mom was introduced to the Foundation to get guidance on establishing a nonprofit. Their help was amazing, and we quickly realized that we needed support in how we raised and distributed funds without running our own nonprofit. They recommended opening a Charitable Checking Account where we could deposit dollars raised and then distribute them to purchase blankets. We love our partners at The Dayton Foundation and couldn’t do this without them.

Cecille: Anyone wishing to help can make a donation to the Warm Hugs Fund of The Dayton Foundation may do so at www.daytonfoundation.org/ccgift.html or contact us (by email) through warmhugswithlove@gmail.com for information.

Q: How would you complete this sentence, “My giving makes me feel ________?”

Cecille: … overjoyed!

Dasha: … alive!

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The Dayton Foundation has been helping people help others since 1921 by managing charitable funds, awarding grants to nonprofits and launching community initiatives. Contact the Foundation at (937) 222-0410 or visit www.daytonfoundation.org.

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