Toys can inspire those facing the gravest circumstances.

That’s why Madison Middle School student Ezekiel Cruz wanted started a “flash toy drive” that took place in town April 21 through 28.

The purpose of the collection was to collect toys for children who are being taken care of at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford.

“The toys will go to the children who are being taken care of there and provide a sense of comfort for them,” he told The Times.  

Ezekiel brainstormed the idea as part of his leadership project for the National Junior Honor Society.

It ended up being an intense operation that included posting flyers, placing collection bins, and making friends with employees at Fairfield County businesses and town departments, including the Trumbull Highway Department.

Reflecting on what he learned from the collection, Ezekiel said that it’s important to put oneself aside and to help out others, especially children who are sick.  

“They are in a hospital for long periods of time and they are away from all their toys and feeling sick, scared and sad,” he said. “With this toy drive I feel like I was able to bring joy to the kids that are in Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and hopefully it will make them feel better faster.”

He also acknowledged that the project helped him develop crucial leaderships skills, like

“being calm and collected during stressful situations.”

“During this activity I ran into a circumstance where I could not pick up the collection bin from Professional Physical Therapy in Wilton,” he said. “I was so upset and worried, but then I realized I had to stay calm and I was able to arrange for my physical therapist from Wilton, Pat Buckley, to bring the toys up with him and drop them off at my house.”

Besides leadership, the project taught Ezekiel determination.   

“I can also apply this skill to the Madison ‘ROARS’ standards by taking responsibility for not planning ahead instead of blaming someone else and saying it was their fault we did not get the toys,” he said.

Food pantry

Ezekiel was one of a half dozen Madison students who were busy in April.

Fellow eighth grader Jackie Zhang also completed a National Junior Honor Society leadership project by organizing a small canned food drive among relatives and around her neighborhood.

She dropped off the collected food items last week at the Trumbull Food Pantry, which provides food to residents who cannot acquire meals due to various circumstances.

“In order to organize the can drive, I contacted and visited the donors to collect the canned items that they could donate,” she said. “After collecting them, I organized the cans themselves into bags, which I then proceeded to bring to the Trumbull Food Pantry to donate.

“Other than myself, the people who were involved were my relatives who provided transportation to collect the cans and to drop them, as well as providing a portion of the cans,” she said.

She told The Times that she learned important skills in communicating with people.

“For example, when it was necessary for me to contact can donors, I had to explain to them the service project I was conducting, as well as asking them if they were able to donate any cans for the drive,” she said. “Also, I had to contact the food pantry to ask them if they would accept the cans.

“I learned more about how I have to be responsible in organizing the canned food drive, and make sure I do not procrastinate and have to take the leadership project seriously, as it is very important to food pantries like this one which count on donations to survive,” she said. “I believe these skills that I learned and exhibited during the service project are important towards being a leader for projects similar to this and in general.”

Earthquake relief

Perhaps the most unique of all the projects was Entonia Jones’s fund-raiser for Ecuador Earthquake Emergency Relief.

She sold baked goods — cupcakes, cookies and brownies — to raise funds.

In total, Entonia sold 52 baked items and raised $156.86. She then donated all of the money to Global Shapers in Quito.

“I learned from my project that trying to help others is one of the best things you can do, and no matter how big or small something is, every penny counts,” she told The Times. “My project helped me gain leadership skills by having me construct a fund-raising team and come up with a plan and a method to help the people in need in Quito, Ecuador.”

Community contribution

For his project, Madison student Kai Wismar established a simple way to contribute to the community.

“Firstly, I started by brainstorming some ideas that could benefit people in need,” he explained. “After talking to a pastor at a nearby church, I decided to support the local food pantry.”

He proceeded to place a container on a table in his social studies classroom at school after speaking to his teacher, Mr. Stec, so that there was a designated area for donations.

“Moreover, I discussed my project with my third period class a couple of times,” he said. “It is still an ongoing activity, which additionally involves all my eighth grade peers at Madison Middle School.”

Kai said he learned communication skills, like public speaking, as well as practicing his ability to plan and take initiative.

“Overall, I realized that being a leader realistically means being capable of interacting and communicating with others who are able to assist the cause,” he said.  

“Although it is not a large-scale project, any leader needs to have a certain amount of effort, action-orientated mind, and a positive attitude,” he said. “A director is accountable for what he or she does and has a sense of personal responsibility. Evidently, this endeavor improved my leadership skills and applied the school’s motto to a real situation.”

Trash collector

Similar to what Kai did, Madison eighth grader Brendan Phelan stayed close to home for his project by collecting litter from the Indian Ledge turf field.

“There is always empty bottles and trash there from the sports teams,” he explained. “It didn’t involve much organization — I brought a trash bag and gloves to collect the garbage and my family and I collected it.”

He said he’s spent plenty of time at the turf field over years of playing sports.

“It only seemed right to make sure it is in good condition for everyone else,” he said.

Graves’ disease

For Michael Magut, the project was an opportunity to raise awareness about Graves’ disease and encourage others to learn about this little-known medical condition — and one that has struck him personally.

“Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disease caused by an overactive thyroid gland,” he explained. “Some symptoms of Graves’ disease are irritability, confusion, tremors, extreme weight loss, and atrial fibrillation.

“I am familiar with these symptoms because my mother, who has always been a healthy person, suddenly found herself losing two pounds a day, dropping objects, unable to stabilize her heart rate, and having difficulty remembering things,” he said. “Thankfully, her team of doctors was able to quickly treat her condition.”

Michael did not want to pressure anyone to simply give a monetary donation.

“Rather, I wanted to give a brief explanation about Graves’ disease and ask people to learn more about it and consider donating directly to the Graves’ Disease and Thyroid Foundation.”

He prepared by learning about the disease, treatment and the need for more research.

“Next, I found the GDATF website and its donation page,” he said. Then my mother helped me by introducing me to local business owners so I could present my project and ask them to go to the website for more information or to donate.”

Looking at the National Junior Honor Society requirements, Michael said, he wanted to do a project that gave back to the community as well as show his mom “how important she is to me.” “I have made people aware of a disease that is not well-known or publicized, and provided much-needed aid to funding a program very near to my family,” he said.