Words by Abi Scaife
It is well known that everyone loves a cuddly toy - no matter how old, or how young, there is nothing quite like the comfort of snuggling with your favourite creature.
That’s what Patricia Gallagher realised one Christmas when she decided to read to the residents at an old people’s home back in 2009 and brought along some toys that used to belong to her children.
“It was December 1st  and I was feeling out of sorts,” explains Patricia. “I said to my mother ‘why don't we go to the dollar store, buy 10 copies of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ and I'll call a couple of nursing homes and see if we can go over and read the stories to the residents.”
Deciding she couldn’t go empty-handed, Patricia and her mother gathered together some props; snow globes and bells and wreaths, and stuffed animals that used to belong to her children.
“When we went in there they were [at] a long table just sitting there,” says Patricia, of the first nursing home they visited. “And all of a sudden my mother and I started draping these Christmas blankets and stuffed animals and giving them bells to ring and the room just became alive.”
As Patricia read to the residents she saw them brightening up, holding their stuffed animals. But when it was time for Patricia and her mother to leave, the residents were suddenly unwilling to let their new toys go. After persuading them to return the toys, many of which belonged to Patricia’s children, Patricia promised to return another day with their own stuffed toys.
“That night I put [it] on Facebook - I said I feel as high as a kite,” says Patricia. “[Then] this friend of mine, a Facebook friend that I didn't know well, said that she had a charity and they had 250 stuffed animals leftover from an event and they were brand new, and would I like [them]?”
From there, things began to spiral. Patricia and her mother began visiting veterans homes, nursing homes, and more, offering to read to the residents and giving out brand new, or lightly used, stuffed animals.
Patricia put the call out on Craigslist, in hopes of taking stuffed animals off the hands of people who would otherwise simply have thrown them away. In doing this, she got several memorable responses that still stick with her today.
“[There was] a little Jewish boy and he had his bar mitzvah project,” explains Patricia. “And his mother said he was going to collect 100 [cuddly toys] and he and his little sister Ella would like to go with us on Christmas Eve and pass them out. Well, by the time Christmas Eve came they had 413!”
The stories of generosity go on and on, from the mother who donated the toys of her deceased daughter, to children asking friends to donate toys in lieu of birthday presents.
In the midst of all this, Patricia picked up yet another project to help give back to her community - she became the Happy Flower Lady, after setting up the Happy Flower Day Project as a non-profit. Patricia goes around shops in search of day-old flowers, which would otherwise be thrown away, and gives them out to strangers in her community to help bring a smile to their faces.
Today, Patricia’s stuffed animal project has become much bigger than anyone expected. Currently, she is making ‘granny bags’ with local children with special needs - they create a memorable holiday care package together from items donated or bought at the dollar store.
These granny bags are put together from items like chapsticks, sweet treats, and, of course, the all-important stuffed animals, which are then taken and given out in nursing homes, veterans homes, and more in the run-up to Christmas.
“I believe it came from my mother and father. I mean that's the way they were … when we were kids,” says Patricia, of her generous, giving spirit. “I remember my mother had a saying that ‘it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness’. She said whenever you hear people complaining about things … go out and do something good, go out and light up the world.”