So, at one point, after a near riot of children and teachers ensued, I promised myself that I would never take another Beanie Baby to El Salvador.
At another point, I reconsidered this position because a wonderful program called Armas ni de Jugetes (roughly, weapons are not toys) teaches kids to be peacemakers and offers them the opportunity to trade toy guns and toy weapons for stuffed animals, positive toys or school supplies. Seeing a kid cuddle a Beanie Baby instead of sticking a plastic revolver into his waistband is worth the hassle of hauling these little creatures by the 50-pound-suitcase-full through airports and customs.
So, occasionally I pull a decrepit suitcase full of Beanies behind me through the aduanas, and hand it off to an amazing pastor who is dedicated to teaching kids and communities to fight violence with love, but I haven't given a lot of thought to the impact which the giving of the Beanies may have on the donors, until this past Sunday.
On Sunday, a small panel of folks who had traveled to El Salvador from our US church during 2011 and 2012 gathered to tell stories. We called it, "Gringos in El Salvador - 5-minute Stories from Those Who Have Traveled." Each person shared his or her own memories of a special person or event, a bond which had been built, a transformation in his or her life at home, a recommendation as to why others should travel. When one of the storytellers mentioned that a most memorable moment was observing the opening up of a suitcase of Beanie Babies, I was caught by surprise!
The storyteller was a young woman who just started her career as a pharmacist. She was a member of the Mission of Healing team which coordinates annually with the Salvadoran Lutheran Church and Salvadoran medical professionals to bring holistic healing to those who do not have good access to medical care. At one point, while observing the chaos of a few hundred patients traveling between healing stations and filling prescriptions, she noticed a big suitcase enter the picture. In the center of things, it was opened, and one by one each child received a cuddly new friend. The storyteller told of her own childhood Beanie Baby collection which she had cultivated back when Beanies were really popular and everybody thought they could be sold as collectibles sometime in the future. When the Beanie Baby fad died out, and she realized she was never going to sell them, her parents donated them.
Wow, I thought, that was six years ago. Her parents had asked if we could use the Beanies with our sister church. I remember hesitating but thinking maybe there would be a good use for them. Her parents delivered three white Hefty drawstring bags stuffed full of Beanie Babies.
The storyteller was moved by the genuine gratitude that each patient expressed when receiving medications from her hand. She said that when she dreamed of becoming a pharmacist, it was a dream about helping people, and that in El Salvador she really felt that her professional skills were helping people. When the storyteller saw those kids, standing in line, receiving the Beanie Babies with open arms and big smiles, she remembered her Beanie collection and felt good about giving away all those Beanie Babies. That good feeling of being with people who are so gracious is something the storyteller wishes to experience again, and to share with the people she loves. She and her boyfriend are both participating in the next Mission of Healing.
The storyteller finished her story, but there was a little bit more to tell. She had no idea that those three big white bags with her treasured Beanie Babies provided the impulse for the rejuvenation of the Armas ni de Jugetes program six years ago...that her Beanies would be the pioneers for thousands of traveling Beanies...that her Beanies planted the seeds for what she witnessed with the opening of a suitcase in the middle of the Mission of Healing six years later.
Of course, the Beanie Baby Trade is not a sustainable incentive plan for the Armas ni de Jugetes program. Who knows how many Beanie Babies still live in the US, but at some point it seems they will all have migrated south to new homes. Even now, they are sometimes replaced by crayons and yo-yo's. With a look to the future, church and community leaders in El Salvador are working with their North American partners to think creatively about peace-making activities, non-violence education and small participation rewards which can be purchased locally.
On Monday, I went over to church to organize some donations for the next Mission of Healing. Perched on top of a little pile of toothbrushes were four beautiful Beanie Babies. Four more little Beanies will make their way south, and someone feels good about that.