The People Who Inspire series highlights individuals from a variety of backgrounds and occupations who are seeking to impact the lives of others in a positive way. Through Truth-Telling: the honest sharing of their own experiences, they teach us a little about themselves, hopefully enabling us to be able to learn a little about ourselves through their stories.
Today’s Post features Elana Weinstein, Program Coordinator at The Bottomless Toy Chest: a non-profit organization devoted to delivering art projects, crafts, and interactive toys to hospitalized pediatric cancer patients. The mission of the Bottomless Toy Chest is to lift the spirits and promote a positive state of mind in young cancer patients by providing them with engaging, empowering activities while they are going through treatment.
Could you tell us a little about your background and what led you to your current work?
I have always had a passion for helping people and being with people, it’s just my nature. When I first started college I studied to be an art teacher. Ever since I can remember, I always enjoyed being creative and using my imagination. It only seemed right to become a teacher and teach others how to find their inner artist.
Near the end of my freshman year I felt like something was missing. I went on an Alternative Spring Break that literally changed my life forever. I felt as if I was walking with G-d and he/she/it was telling me that this what my purpose in life was: helping people and making the world a better place. I went on more Alternative Spring break trips and volunteered with people from all walks of life. I then went on to pursue my Masters in Social Work from The University of Michigan with a focus on community organizing.
You know how most people say it’s all about networking? Well in this case, networking paid off. My mom owns a small business in professional organizing and her client is the Founder/Director of The Bottomless Toy Chest.
My mom found out that they were looking for someone to fill the position of Program Coordinator. I contacted her, had a few interviews and have been with The Bottomless Toy Chest for nine months now. The Bottomless Toy Chest or BTC has been around for about 4 years and is getting bigger and better everyday. It is so exciting to be a part of a new organization and watching it grow and prosper.
More about me…
The majority of my experience working with people has been in the Jewish community. I had an internship through the Jewish Federation Of Metropolitan Detroit, as a JOIN Intern and worked with an organization called Kadima, an organization that works with clients who have mental illness.
It was a great experience as I was in my budding stages as a social work student. I had the opportunity to attend a week at Camp Sea-Gull with the clients. The camp I went to as a child and teen. Having the chance to see them in an environment that wasn’t controlled by medication or strict rules….they were able to just be “people.”
I also had the eye-opening experience as working with children who have Autism as a camp inclusion counselor, and field placement at EMU (Eastern Michigan University) working with older adults who have Alzheimer’s/dementia.
My graduate field placement at Jewish Family Service definitely helped to prepare me for the job I have now. I worked with the Director of Volunteer Services and learned how to manage volunteers, use a database system, write thank you letters, event planning, and sending out mailings.
Do you have any other issues that you’re interested in working on or working with others in terms of social justice/equity?
Social justice to me means to make sure others are treated the way you want to be treated and in this case the populations I am interested in working with are not limited to one population. Because of what is happening in Michigan right now with women’s rights and reproductive freedom, I am looking to get more involved in the political side of social work and put some of my community organizing skills to the test.
I have a passion for working with LGBTQ youth as I help co-lead a group that was focused on how to work with LGLBTQ as a social worker or someone who works in human services. I really could go on and on about every population and area I would like to work with….
One last thing, since I mentioned that I originally was in art I came across an opportunity during my time as a graduate student. There was an elective that spoke volumes to me, called Community Empowerment through Creative Expression.
Instantly I knew that I would love this class because it allowed me to go out in the community and use creativity as a means of therapy and expression. This class showed me how I can bring my passion or art and helping people together!
What are the parts of your work that you find most enjoyable?
The fact that I get to work with people and I don’t have to sit behind a cubicle definitely makes me happy. This job allows me to be a free bird which is who I am. I do not feel like I am trapped away in an office. Instead, I am able to use my creativity and skill set to help people and make a difference in kids and their families lives.
A usual week for me looks something like this: Monday I hangout with the interns and help oversee the projects they are working on. Tuesday, if we have a toy delivery I, or the director go deliver the toys to the hospital and actually get to talk with the kiddies and get to know them and their families. I also get to coordinate the hospital deliveries and get to know the social workers and child life specialists. When I deliver toys, I can’t stop smiling and it is a very humbling experience.
Recently, I have been spending about 90% of my time getting toy drives and wrapping parties organized and completed. I have the joy of getting youth in high school and young girls like girl scouts involved and they get inspired to help out. It inspires me to watch them help kids their age without really knowing they are making a difference.
Since being at The Bottomless Toy Chest…I definitely feel that the organization is moving into the right direction and I am happy to see that it was because of my hard work and skillset…
What aspects do you find challenging?
Working for a non-profit that is in its baby stages, is challenging in itself but I find it helps keep me on my toes. I help keep the organization running and standing tall. It’s not an easy job but I absolutely love being challenged and learning new things everyday. Sometimes its hard helping run an organization but the wisdom and knowledge I receive definitely impacts who I am.
Do you have any words of advice for anyone who might want to help bring hope to others or work to improve their communities or the broader culture in terms of transforming their ideas to action?
The more people who help make the world a better place, the closer we are to helping those who really could use the help. If it was easy every one would do it….nothing is easy in life but I’d rather have it be challenging because you learn so much more about who you are and the world overall. If you want to help people….help people. I am sure there is someone who is interested in getting involved in a similar area and you could really create something amazing.
What/Who Inspires you?
I live my life by my spirituality…In Judaism, there is a Hebrew term “ Tikkun Olam” which in English translates to repair the world. I feel that I am the individual who will bring those pieces together. I live my life by not merely saying I am going to go help someone, but by actively going out and making a difference.
I see the oppression, injustice, and hate that diminishes the beauty the world has to offer. I am the Artist of my life; I have the power to make it the way I envision it to be. We all have an inner-artist within ourselves. I see helping people in social work as a form of art in itself. It takes a special type of person who is selfless, devoted, and will not let anything come in the way between you and changing the world.
Growing up in a family that stressed the importance of finding yourself and celebrating it has also been inspiring. At a young age I was introduced to art and it has allowed me to find my true self. My parents instilled the values embrace diversity, love those around you, follow your heart, and help make the world a better place. I feel that these values have paved the way for my passion for social justice and world peace.
What have been the Keys to your success so far?
I would have to say having the blessing of having such a supportive family has helped shaped my success. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have been able to go onto pursue my Masters in Social Work. I am forever grateful to have such an amazing family who cares and supports me in everything I do.
Are there any special projects you’re working on currently?
Luckily I have several interns and volunteers who are working on special outings for the families and patients.
We at The Bottomless Toy chest are at a very exciting time in our growth…We are looking to expand to new hospitals all over Michigan. We have a warehouse full of toys. Our mission at BTC is to reach every single one of those kids and teens are undergoing cancer treatment and help bring a smile on their face to help them through this trying time.
Is there anything Else you’d like to add?
Key core elements I feel help shape myself and my role as a social worker:
- Empowerment: Each individual who walks on this Earth has unique, skills, and talents that should be celebrated. Everyone is not the same we are all different and we should lift each other’s spirits rather than bring them down.
- Social Justice: Treat others, as you would want to be treated. Everyone deserves to be treated with equality, dignity, and self-respect regardless of age, skin color, religion, sexual orientation and anything else that makes us different from one another.
- Peace: I truly believe that in order to have peace within the world we have to find it deep within ourselves.
- Service: As a person who’s mission is to heal the world. I feel that we all need to take the time to help others who are less fortunate than ourselves.
♡ .helping hands . volunteering . repairing the world . peace . love. social justice . equal rights . ♡
I hold the key to the beauty of my dreams
I am like a chameleon, resilient, and amenable
I am constantly testing the waters of change
I am an ally for those who are not heard
Tikkun Olam is engraved in my soul
We live in a time where is imperative to get involved and literally change the world. Whether it be helping out an older adult by bringing in a bag of groceries, spending time with a child who could use a mentor, and anything else….
I ask you to take the time to help out your human race. We were put on this planet for a reason and I really do think it was to help our fellow-man.
Grace & Peace,
From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW
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