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Toys for Ecuador: Humble Beginnings Inspired This Non-Profit Organization

His family came to this country with very little, but he made sure not to leave his boyhood memories behind.

Byron wraps gifts with his mother, Aida and sisters Lorena and Tiffany: Photo by Todd Plitt
Credit: Todd Plitt 2021
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In a small coastal community in Ecuador known as La Isla, I looked out at the children standing in a long line in their schoolyard. They’d gathered that Christmas morning in 2010, likely wearing the only decent clothes they owned. They were quiet, polite, eyes bright with excitement.

I had returned to La Isla, where my aunt lived, to hand out clothes and toys we’d collected through our nonprofit organization called Toys for Ecuador. I noticed one boy in particular, about nine years old, trying hard to contain his enthusiasm. When he reached the front of the line, I handed him a toy truck. He looked up at me in disbelief and ran to his mom, hugging his truck, crying as she hugged him.

Children with Christmas gifts given to them by Toys For Ecuador; Photo Courtesy Toys for Ecuador
Children with Christmas gifts given to them by Toys For Ecuador; Photo Courtesy Toys for Ecuador

He was the reason I was visiting La Isla and other poverty-stricken communities in my homeland. I got a shiver watching the scene play out, my mind flashing back to a day I’d never forget.

I was five years old that Christmas Eve in 1988, growing up in Biblián, Ecuador, with my parents and older sister. My father came into my bedroom, his hands behind his back. “I have something for you,” he said. I thought it might be a cookie or a piece of fruit. Instead he extended his hands to reveal a plastic figure like nothing I’d ever seen. A cowboy about 12 inches tall, his hat and pants painted brown, vest and boots black, shirt a clean white. Like the boy in La Isla, I’d never owned a real toy of any kind. My family didn’t have much. My mom stayed home, caring for my sister and me. My dad drove a food delivery truck and was on the road for days at a time.

“I hope you like your toy,” my father said. He knelt down and held me close. I felt the strength in his arms, the warmth of his body. As if in giving me this toy he was also giving me a part of himself. Even at age five, I realized that too had been a gift.

I didn’t play with my cowboy the way children in the United States would have. I never roughhoused with him. I kept my cowboy in a drawer where he wouldn’t get scratched or dirty. Often I’d just hold him in my hands, amazed that I could own such a treasure. For two months I enjoyed my cowboy in the familiar surroundings of Biblián.

Then I learned my family was moving to the U.S. I hardly understood what it meant. The night before we left, I put my cowboy atop my clothes in the suitcase. We were in America when I asked my mother where it was. She explained that we had overpacked, and she had to rearrange things at the last minute to save room. In the rush, my cowboy had been left behind.

Newark, New Jersey, was our home now. My lost cowboy soon became the least of my concerns. So much had changed, I had trouble adjusting. I barely spoke English. I had trouble making friends. I missed Ecuador terribly. But even in this new land, I looked forward to Christmas. And when it came, I was especially thankful for the love of the family I had around me. Christmas had not changed, even if almost everything else in my life had.

Byron holding Christmas gifts; Photo by Todd Plitt
Byron holding Christmas gifts; Photo by Todd Plitt

By sixth grade I’d found my footing, and life got easier. I excelled in high school. Every good grade was a thank-you to my parents for all they’d done for me. Making the most of educational opportunities seemed like the least I could do. I went on to college, and in 2006, with my degree in hand, I became a pharmacist. I was finally able to buy nice gifts for my family, but I could never give in equal measure the love I’d felt from that first, unexpected gift I’d received as a boy in Ecuador. I wished every child could know that feeling.

Two years into my career, I made my first trip to La Isla to visit my aunt for Christmas. She had a tradition of handing out goody bags to children, and I added simple toys to her offerings. The kids’ smiles filled my heart with so much joy, I had to find a way to keep it going. I returned to La Isla in 2010, this time with Toys for Ecuador up and running. My parents, and now two sisters and I traveled to towns all across rural Ecuador with sacks of Christmas presents for children and gift baskets for seniors. My father’s long-distance driving experience came in handy, and we’ve since added food and necessities to our deliveries.

Covid has limited our travels, but it hasn’t stopped the giving through Toys for Ecuador. Even when I can’t look into the wide eyes of a boy like the one in La Isla, who cried when he got his toy truck, I share in the excitement of all the children. Giving is the gift that keeps the memory of my long-lost cowboy and all he represented fresh in my mind always.

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