How JustServe volunteers gathered thousands of stuffed animals for Ronald McDonald House

The stuffed animals spilled out of boxes, smiled from cars’ back seats, snuggled on tables and filled up the back of a delivery truck — soft pink teddy bears, big-eyed velvet puppies, plush grey elephants, unicorns, pandas, monkeys and bunnies and many more. 

On one day in late October, hundreds of cars drove to 27 locations in San Diego and Orange counties, California, to drop off 4,200 stuffed animals to benefit Ronald McDonald House Charities of San Diego.

It exceeded the previous year’s donations by 1,800. And it’s a long way from the 150 that were brought in for the first stuffed-animal drive six years ago. 

The effort means sick children and their siblings will each be able to have their own new stuffed animal during their stay at the Ronald McDonald House, which provides housing for families with children being treated at local hospitals. The charitable organization can go through around 300 stuffed animals a month.

“That is a lot of little ones that are being provided comfort with these stuffed animals,” said Robin Gephart, the JustServe coordinator in the San Diego area.

Gephart said JustServe helped expand the reach and scope of the annual initiative this year. JustServe.org is a website and app that connects organizations with volunteers. It lists service projects or opportunities by ZIP code. 

People share stories of their own stuffed animals as they drop off new plush toys for the annual drive benefiting Ronald McDonald House Charities in San Diego, California, on Oct. 23, 2021.
People share stories of their own stuffed animals as they drop off new plush toys for the annual drive benefiting Ronald McDonald House Charities in San Diego, California, on Oct. 23, 2021. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

She explained that Pastor John Quinata of Our Father’s Grace Ministries has organized this event for the past six years. Latter-day Saints in the San Diego area wanted to help collect stuffed animals, and they listed the project on JustServe. Gephart showed them how it could become countywide. More groups signed up, and so did other Latter-day Saint stakes in the area.

Stakes in the Newport Beach area started signing up as well. The Los Angeles Ronald McDonald House was under construction, so people there drove their donations south to the San Diego area. People used the JustServe.org website to find the closest drop-off location.

In the end, 90 congregations from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, St. Andrews Lutheran Church, Our Mother of Confidence Catholic Church, Buddhist Temple of San Diego, San Diego First Church of the Nazarene, San Diego-Imperial Council Boy Scouts of America and the La Mesa Police Department all participated in the multicounty stuffed animal drive.

 “I am stunned,” Pastor Quinata told the San Diego Union Tribune. “I don’t have words.”

A table advertises the JustServe website and app while holding stuffed animals collected throughout San Diego and Orange counties in California on Oct. 23, 2021.
A table advertises the JustServe website and app while holding stuffed animals collected throughout San Diego and Orange counties in California on Oct. 23, 2021. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Volunteers tied a card or tag with a message on each stuffed animal. And as the volunteers worked and as people dropped off the toys, they would offer up their stories.

“I can’t tell you how many times people came to us and would say, ‘My daughter received one of the animals from the Ronald McDonald House,’ ‘My son got one of those, and he still has it,’ ‘My 29-year-old got one at 3 years old and it still sits on her bed,’” said Gephart. “These stories are shared because it’s very heartfelt.”

Gephart told the Church News they already have a date picked for next year’s drive.

“Pastor John Quinata started this with 16 high school students six years ago, and now look at the numbers. He was amazed at what we are able to do. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of good that’s happening.”