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."

Researchers at Harvard University have studied the connection between spanking and kids' brain development for the first time, and their findings echo what studies have indicated for years: Spanking isn't good for children.

Comments on this article will no doubt be filled with people who a) say they were spanked and "turned out fine" or b) say that the reason kids are [fill in the blank with some societal ill] these days are because they aren't spanked. However, a growing body of research points to spanking creating more problems than it solves.

"We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don't think about spanking as a form of violence," said Katie A. McLaughlin, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher on the study which was published Friday in the journal Child Development. "In this study, we wanted to examine whether there was an impact of spanking at a neurobiological level, in terms of how the brain is developing."

You can read the entire study here, but the gist is that kids' brain activity was measured using an MRI machine as they reacted to photos of actors displaying "fearful" and "neutral" faces. What researchers found was that kids who had been spanked had similar brain neural responses to fearful faces as kids who had been abused.

"There were no regions of the brain where activation to fearful relative to neutral faces differed between children who were abused and children who were spanked," the authors wrote in a statement.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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