Franklin County Children Services hosts charitable party on Dec. 5

Since 1963, the Franklin County Children Services' Holiday Wish program has provided holiday gifts for about 180,000 children in need. But, until recently, there was a shortage of culturally specific items for African-American girls among the donations.

“We would have to hit the stores with gift cards,” recalled Holiday Wish Program Director Elizabeth Crabtree. “I'd go to Target and buy them out and my cart would be half full. … I'd have a conversation with the store manager, [saying], ‘Your shelves do not reflect the population of Franklin County.'”

And among the gifts gathered at the West Mound Street office — about 6,000 children benefit annually — Community Outreach Liaison Valancia Turner remembers seeing one culturally specific book.

However, on a visit to the donation center after Thanksgiving, relevant gifts were already rolling in, including books like I Am Enough by Grace Byers and the always-popular Disney Princess Tiana doll.

That's because the Black Girl Magic Toy Drive was created two years ago as part of Holiday Wish to cater to African-American girls, who represent 21 percent of children in FCCS. (African-American children and children of color comprise 55-57 percent total.)

“It just goes the extra mile to do something for their self-esteem and self-worth if those gifts actually reflect their diversity and their culture,” said Tonia Still, director of the agency's Malaika Mentoring Program for African-American girls and women.

To participate in the drive, community members can drop gifts at the office, order through the Amazon Wish List or bring gifts to a gathering at Copious on Wednesday, Dec. 5. The event will feature live entertainment, and provide an opportunity to network while watching the impressive collection of items swell during the evening.

In addition to books and dolls, STEM items (science kits, interactive games, etc.) and hair-care products are encouraged.

“It's so important to get the right hair brushes, de-tanglers, styling gels, conditioners,” Turner said. “[Hair] is a big part of self-esteem and identity.”

“Sometimes [girls] go into homes, foster homes, residential facilities that aren't ethnic or African-American,” Still said. “So having those things to take with them is a huge part of maintaining some of that dignity and maintaining some of that identity as they transition through our system.”

Community members young and old have stepped up to help with the Black Girl Magic Toy Drive. Turner recalled a woman in her 60s getting emotional as she helped collect items.

“She had never, ever had a black doll,” Turner said.

Children have also pitched in for school or community service projects, and former FCCS youths have contributed as a way to give back to the system.

“We really try to be as authentic as possible, so we'll take [gifts] to the caregiver when the kids aren't home,” Crabtree said. “[Kids] might know it comes from the community, but they also might think it comes from their parents or Santa.”

Recently, Central Ohio has turned a sharper focus on African-American girls, with Councilmember Priscilla Tyson establishing the Commission on Black Girls last summer “to study and assess the quality of life of black girls.” FCCS Executive Director Charles M. Spinning sits on the commission.

“What they recognized is that there are definitely some gaps in service to black girls in Columbus,” Still said. “They are in their fact-finding stage.”

FCCS is doing its part with efforts like its therapeutic arts and culturally specific mentoring programs. And the Black Girl Magic Toy Drive is making its mark, even with its name alone.

“Oftentimes you talk about child welfare [and] we use terms that don't put our kids in the light of how beautiful and strong they are,” Crabtree said. “We're fundraising from the point of view that our kids are magic, and our black girls are magic, and we want them to be seen for who they are, not just what they've come from or what they've experienced.”