An entire room of the Char family house in Woodcliff Lake is piled high with baby-care items, even though the youngest of the three Char daughters is 15.
This is because Alexa, 16, and Emily, 15, pack up plastic laundry baskets full of basic supplies for distribution to low-income parents of premature babies and to single teen moms who lack familial support.
Not just a glorified bat mitzvah project, Project Hearts to Homes is a 501(c)3 nonprofit charity that happens to be run by two teenage girls.
Alexa explains that their father, Daniel, works at the Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, where every December the affiliated Valley Home Care agency sponsors a “giving tree” to match givers with client families who don’t have the means to buy holiday gifts.
“Families like ours sign up and receive a list of gifts the family has requested, and we go out and buy them and wrap them,” Alexa said. “In 2015 we got our list and we saw that the gifts really weren’t gifts — there were basic necessities like bath towels and toothpaste.
“Our entire lives we’ve known there are people in poverty, but seeing that list and knowing they live 10 minutes from us was totally eye-opening. So we decided we needed to do something about it.”
Emily nodded in agreement. “A 12-year-old girl asking for toilet paper and underwear instead of a toy or a cell phone — that’s unbelievable. And this is happening right in our backyard.”
The sisters approached Valley Home Care to determine how best to direct their efforts. “They told us they have at least 50 families a month with premature infants,” Alexa said. These families are struggling under the burden of health care costs for their fragile babies.
“It took about eight months to get registered with the IRS and build the website,” Emily said. “It was a lot of work, but in September 2016 our website rolled out and we started collecting donations through our PayPal account. We’ve gotten about $25,000 so far, plus a lot of donated supplies.”
They’ve made approximately 100 baskets, and counting. There are three varieties: one for preemies that’s filled with diapers, bottles, wipes, baby powder, towels, bibs, and tissues; another, for new parents, containing such household necessities as detergent, soap and toilet paper, and a “family package” that combines items for both baby and household.
The sisters had enough resources to include a second distribution channel. They chose Zoe’s Place in Garfield, a Children’s Aid and Family Service facility that provides supervised housing and other support services for pregnant teens and teen moms and their children.
The abundance of resources is the result of the Char girls’ proactive style. They didn’t sit back and wait for donations to pour in. They reached out to schools, synagogues, and businesses.
Emily, a Dwight Englewood student and a member of Pascack Valley B’nai B’rith Girls, asked delegates to two recent B’nai B’rith Youth Organization regional conventions to bring along one or two items for Project Hearts to Homes. “I spoke to a lot of my peers and it’s great to see that they want to know how to be helpful,” she said.
The sisters made a presentation to the Paramus Rotary Club, which gave them $100 on the spot and provided valuable contacts. They spent a couple of hours walking to area banks seeking support and didn’t give up until they got one positive response — a $2,500 grant from Valley National Bank. They also received contributions from Costco and BJ’s wholesale clubs.
“We buy most of our supplies from Target — we have our own Project Hearts to Homes account there — and once Target found out why we were buying so much, they donated a few hundred dollars to us, which was very helpful,” said Alexa, a student at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale.
Nancy Graves, president and chief executive officer at Bank of New Jersey and Bancorp of New Jersey, agreed to mentor the girls and secured a corporate donation for them as well. “Since she has so many connections, she is able to help us in many ways,” Emily said.
The sisters sell chocolate bars for $1 at Lakeland Regional High School in Wanaque, donating the profits to creating baskets packaged with the help of volunteers from Lakeland and their own schools.
Alexa went to a Kehillah Partnership program to tell sixth- and seventh-grade religious school students from across North Jersey about Project Hearts to Homes, hoping to spark interest from kids looking for worthy causes to support for their bar or bat mitzvah.
The girls sold coupons in conjunction with Lord & Taylor’s Shop Smart Do Good fundraising day a couple of months ago, yielding not only proceeds from purchases made that day but also an additional $400 from Lord & Taylor for assisting with the event.
And they were nominated for a 2017 Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award. “We didn’t win the top prize but we got a certificate,” Emily said.
The best prize, however, is the expressions of appreciation they receive from Valley Home Care and Zoe’s Place and from the baskets’ recipients. “It’s nice to hear from people who appreciate our work,” Emily said. “That’s our reward, to know how much we are affecting people.”
The sisters in turn expressed their appreciation for the “continual support” of their parents, Felice and Daniel Char, and their older sister, Ilana. The family belongs to Temple Beth Or in Washington Township.
“We were born and bred to donate,” Emily said. “Tikkun olam is a huge part of Jewish community life and we were brought up to understand the importance of giving back to the community. We were taught that doing a mitzvah is holy.”
The project’s website is www.hearts2homes.org and the Char sisters may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org