KNOX COUNTY, Tenn — One week ago, Knox County Juvenile Court asked for help in replenishing their supplies of new stuffed animals for children that come through the court.
The community delivered.
Not only did the donations ensure more children can receive a new stuffed animal, but the court also has over $1,500 to buy more.
Local businesses also offered up their facilities to support the program. Prestige Cleaners offered to be a drop off location for new stuffed animals, which they will deliver to the court. Gouffon Moving and Storage offered to safely store any extra stuffed animals and deliver them when needed.
Stuffed animals have been playing a pivotal role within Knox County Juvenile Court for years.
They're handed out to kids often there for abuse and neglect, or kids coming in for foster care. It helps them feel less scared and more willing to talk.
"It has worked miracles, it's been way more valuable than I ever thought it would be," said Juvenile Judge Tim Irwin.
The Tennessee Department of Child Services responds to more than 37,000 reports of child abuse and neglect a year. There are nearly 8,000 children in foster care within the state.
The program started with hundreds to give away then thousands, but their supply started dwindling and they asked for the community's help to give children the comfort they deserve when coming into the courtroom.
"This is way more important than it sounds," said Irwin. A child's trip to court comes with a lot of emotions. "I've had kids that won't look up at me, won't talk, forget about answering questions."
A solution was found years ago through stuffed animals. Irwin lets a child pick out a stuffed animal of their choosing during their visit.
"Some days we go through 40, some days we might only use one or two," he said.
Most of the kids Irwin sees aren't there by their own choosing.
"Their mom or dad are maybe arguing who has custody or they're dependent neglected."
He said since the program started "it has worked miracles." The child is more open and communicative in front of the seemingly scary judge.
"Makes them think he's not a bad guy, he's gonna take care of me," Irwin said. "It's kind of neat to watch the kids smile and some of these kids need to smile."
"When the little ones get it their whole faces light up," said Ada Hernandez-Bell with CASA of East Tennessee. She works closely with kids going through court and has seen the lasting impact of the small toy.
"Makes them feel like they're there and being seen and valued in the room and gives them joy during a difficult time," she said.
"It's been way more valuable than I ever thought it would be," said Irwin.
If you would like to donate, you can drop off new stuffed animals at the Juvenile Court.
You can also make a check payable to 'Compassion Coalition' noting it's for stuffed animals at 318 N. Gay Street, Suite 207.