She found the perfect place for all of your discarded toys: in the hands of kids in need.

She doesn't like to compare herself to Santa Claus, but for hundreds of children, she's been just that.

All photos courtesy of Rina Fernandez, used with permission.


Meet Rina Fernandez, a 40-year-old living in Van Nuys, California. To fully understand her mission, it's essential to know where she came from.

Rina experienced poverty while growing up in Venezuela. She remembers how much she loved toys as a kid, even though she didn't receive them often.

"If I was lucky, I'd get a toy or two a year," Rina told me. "Looking back on it now, the toys weren't very nice at all, but back then, I thought they were the most amazing things ever."

Her father greatly influenced how she thought about toys, particularly when she saw his generosity.

A young Rina (smiling, wearing blue shorts) with her family.

"Even though I grew up in poverty, my dad had a good job as a carpenter, and we were better off than the majority of people in my neighborhood," Rina recalled. "But one thing I noticed about my dad is he would use what little free money he had to buy toys for the other kids in my apartment complex who were less fortunate than we were. To see the joy on those kids' faces is what started my journey to give."

Rina wanted to see more smiles from children, so she decided to do something about it.

A few years after relocating to America, Rina met the love of her life, Jared, a supply officer in the United States Navy. They married when she was 19 and they're still happily together two decades later.

Jared and Rina enjoying a beautiful sunset.

Shortly after tying the knot with Jared, Rina decided to act on her strong desire to give back to children growing up in poverty like she did.

Her idea: find a way to give toys to children in need.

In 1996, she planned her first trip to bring toys to poor children in Venezuela. The budget was $10,000, which was the maximum spending limit on the family's credit card, and it was used to pay for food, travel, lodging, and all the toys.

At first, Jared was a little skeptical due to the amount of money going into the project, but it didn't take long for him to get on board. "She's all about making the world a better place by making others happy," Jared told me. "How could I not support that?"

Now the couple runs a complex toy donation operation that's reached nearly two dozen countries.

First, Rina visits secondhand stores and buys as many toys and dolls as she can afford. She mentions that she's "not very popular" there because many customers just assume she's a greedy person who's reselling the toys for a profit.

Of course, that couldn't be further from the truth.

Rina stuffs her cart with as many used toys as possible.

Next, she cleans the toys thoroughly. She also does what she can to fix the ones that are damaged. This task often takes hours out of her day, but she doesn't mind. "These children have dignity," Rina said. "I'm not going to give them dirty or broken toys. I want them to be the highest quality possible."

"I'm not going to give them dirty or broken toys," Rina said.

And finally, she packs the toys into as many bags as she possibly can and takes them to impoverished countries.

She usually depends on the help of her friends and family members to assist with the expenses. Jared, their 18-year-old son Jared Jr., and other friends often come along.

Bags upon bags filled with toys to deliver to impoverished children.

The payoff? Smiles.

Seeing the joy on the faces of these poverty-stricken children is what she lives for.

The happy little boy below is one of five children being raised by a single mom in Oviedo, a small town on the southwest coast of the Dominican Republic. When Rina arrived, the children were completely naked, found in a shack with no electricity or running water. Within minutes of providing toys and clothes to the family, other neighbors stopped by to witness the event.

According to Rina, he couldn't stop smiling.

This is one happy little boy. GIFs from "One Toy at a Time."

Rina and her small team have visited 22 countries in the past 18 years to deliver small gifts throughout the world.

She's reached hundreds of children. But why focus on toys? Why not just donate money instead?

For starters, toys help to create a child's sense of imagination and ownership. "These kids have nothing," Rina told me. "Often I have to spend time with the children convincing them that the toy is theirs. They can protect it, feed it, bathe it, negotiate with it, or do whatever. Something as simple as that is something they rarely experience. It's powerful and special."

Toys help kids learn. According to Peter Grey, a research professor at Boston College*: "Toys help children to explore possibilities of different characters and worlds. Doing so requires a great deal of intellectual effort and helps to exercise social abilities."

She's skeptical of donating. "The reason I don't just donate money is because I don't know where it goes," Rina told me. "Will the people who need the money actually get it? At least when I visit these places, I know they'll get something because I'm the one handing it to them."

Rina and Jared are not wealthy. Far from it, actually. Jared works for the U.S. Department of Defense as a contract administrator and is also in the Navy Reserve. Rina is an actress who works in commercials, a career that doesn't always provide a steady income. Currently they live in a modest trailer in Van Nuys, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles.

Would they love to donate thousands of iPads instead of secondhand dolls and clothes? Would they love to combat poverty at a systemic level? Maybe. But they're doing what they can with the means afforded to them. During a good year, they're lucky to bring home a combined $70,000 in salary. That's pretty good in today's world, but once you factor in that this project now has a yearly price tag of $35,000 to execute, it changes things.

"We don't have a big house, cable television, fancy restaurant dinners, or the newest computers," Rina says. "But I have the greatest husband in the world, a wonderful son, and a great mission. When I look at those children smiling, I know that we are truly making a difference."

In a world of armchair activists where everyone has an opinion on how someone chooses to improve the world, I hope people will look at Rina and be thankful that she's doing something. In this instance, the "something" she's doing is extremely valuable.

Rina is always hard at work.

Although Rina is a very happy woman overall, there is one thing that brings her to tears.

The painful reality that she can't do it alone.

No matter how hard she tries, and no matter how many toys she brings, there's no way that every child will receive one. That absolutely crushes her.

After keeping the project in relative stealth mode for almost two decades, she knew it was time for a change, so she and Jared began reaching out to the public.

Rina and Jared admit to not having the time or expertise to manage a full-blown nonprofit, so they've partnered with an organization that receives 5% of the contributions to cover administrative and management costs, letting the couple focus on delivering toys and smiles.

A documentary called, "One Toy at a Time" will be released in 2016, as well.

"I didn't want the attention before, but now I know we need help," Rina told me. "I feel like I've done a lot, but there is only so much I can do."

You can't put a price on the happiness of a child.

Rina and her team are going to make their final trip of 2015 to Nicaragua before Christmas. Even though many view her as Santa Claus, she shrugs off any comparisons. She just wants to see more kids grow up to be happy.

"Happiness is measured in smiles. If these toys can help more kids smile and learn, they will hopefully become happy adults."

Speaking of smiles, this little girl below has a beautiful one. Her mother worked long hours selling coconuts near Santiago, the second-largest city in the Dominican Republic. The doll Rina provided moved the mother to tears and gave this little lady one of the happiest moments of her life.

Another happy child, thanks to Rina.

Sometimes it takes a toy and a smile to realize how great we have it.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

When we think of what a Tyrannosaurus looked like, we picture a gargantuan dinosaur with a huge mouth, formidable legs and tail, and inexplicably tiny arms. When we picture how it behaved, we might imagine it stomping and roaring onto a peaceful scene, single-handedly wreaking havoc and tearing the limbs off of anything it can find with its steak-knife-like teeth like a giant killing machine.

The image is probably fairly accurate, except for one thing—there's a good chance the T. rex wouldn't have been hunting alone.

New research from a fossil-filled quarry in Utah shows that Tyrannosaurs may have been social creatures who utilized complex group hunting strategies, much like wolves do. The research team who conducted the fossil study and made the discovery include scientists from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Colby College of Maine, and James Cook University in Australia.

The idea of social Tyrannosaurs isn't entirely new—Canadian paleontologist Philip Curie floated the hypothesis 20 years ago upon the discovery of a group of T. rex skeletons who appeared to have died together—but it has been widely debated in the paleontology world. Many scientists have doubted that their relatively small brains would be capable of such complex social behavior, and the idea was ridiculed by some as sensationalized paleontology PR.

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2020 was difficult (to say the least). The year was full of life changes, losses, and lessons as we learned to navigate the "new normal." You may have questions about what the changes and challenges of 2020 mean for your taxes. That's where TurboTax Live comes in, making it easy to connect with real tax experts to help with your taxes – or even do them for you, start to finish.

Not only has TurboTax Live helped millions of people get their taxes done right, but this year they've also celebrated people who uplifted their communities during a difficult time by surprising them with "little lifts" to help out even more.

Here are a few of their stories:


Julz, hairdresser and salon owner

"As a hairdresser and salon owner, 2020 was extremely challenging," says Julz. "Being a hairdresser has historically been a recession-proof industry, but we've never faced global shut down due to health risk, or pandemic, not in my lifetime. And for the first time, hairdressers didn't have job security."

Julz had to shut down her salon and go on unemployment benefits for the first time. She also had to figure out how she was going to support herself, her staff and her business during this difficult time. But many other beauty industry professionals didn't have access to the resources they needed, so Julz decided to help.

"My business partner and I began teaching basic financial literacy to other beauty industry professionals," she says. "Transitioning our business from behind the chair to an online academy was a challenge we tackled head-on so that we could move hairdressers into this new space of education, and create a more accessible curriculum to better serve our industry.

Julz connected with a TurboTax Live expert who helped her understand how unemployment affected her taxes and gave her guidance on filing quarterly estimated taxes for her small business. "I was terrified to sit at a computer and tackle this mess of receipts," Julz says, so "it was great to have some virtual handholding to walk me through each question."

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Alana, new mom

Alana welcomed her first child in 2020. "I think my biggest challenge was figuring out how to be a mom, with no guidance," she says. "My original plan was to have my mom by my side, teaching me the ropes, but because of COVID, she wasn't able to come out here."

She was also without a job for most of 2020 and struggled to find something new.

So, Alana took it as a sign: she decided to launch her own business so she could support her new baby, and that's exactly what she did. She started a feel-good company that specializes in creating affirmation card decks — and she's currently in the process of starting a second, video-editing business.

TurboTax Live answered Alana's questions about her taxes and gave her some much-needed advice as she prepared to launch her businesses. Thanks to their "little lift," they provided her with a little emotional support too.

"I got my mom a plane ticket to finally [have her] meet [my daughter] for her first birthday," Alana says. "I was also able to get a new computer," which helped her invest in her new business and work on her video editing skills. "It's helped my family and me so much," she says.


Michael, science teacher

When schools shut down across the country last year, Michael had to learn how to adapt to a virtual classroom.

"As a teacher, I had to completely revamp everything," he says, so that he could keep his students engaged while teaching online. "At the beginning, it was a nightmare because I had no idea. I had to go from A-Z within a couple of weeks."

Michael's TurboTax Live expert answered his questions about how working from home affected his taxes and helped him uncover surprising tax deductions. To top it all off, his expert surprised him with brand new science equipment and supplies, which allowed him to create an entire line of classes on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. "Now I can truly potentially reach millions of children with my lessons," he says. "I would never have taken that leap if not for the little lift from TurboTax Live."



Ricky, motivational youth speaker

As a motivational speaker, Ricky was used to doing his job in person, but, he says, "when COVID-19 hit, it altered my ability to travel and visit schools in person [because] schools moved to fully virtual or hybrid models."

He knew he had to pivot — so he began offering small virtual group workshops for student leadership groups at middle and high schools.

"This allowed me to work with student leaders to plan how they would continue making a positive impact on their school community," he says. He wasn't sure how being remote would affect his taxes, but TurboTax Live Self-Employed gave him the advice and answers that he needed to keep more money in his pocket at tax time — and the little lift he received from them has helped him serve even more students.

"[It] has been a major blessing," he says "There will be multiple schools and student groups from across the country that I can hold leadership workshops with to empower them with the tools to be inspirational leaders in their school, community, and world."

Plus, he says, it was great knowing he had an expert to help him figure out how being remote affected his taxes. "I felt confident and assured in the process of filing my taxes knowing I had an expert working with me, says Ricky. "There were things my expert knew that I would not have considered when filing on my own."

Filing your taxes doesn't have to be intimidating, especially after a year like 2020. TurboTax Live experts can give you the "little lift" you need to get your taxes done. File with the help of an expert or let an expert file for you! Go to TurboTax Live to get started.