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A Grandmother’s Legacy

For 11-year-old children, the newest Nintendo Wii game or Hannah Montana doll is what typically tops the current list of priorities.

But when Columbus-native Emily Douglas was just a decade young, her wish list’s most-wanted item didn’t come in an attractive factory-packaged box. Instead, she dreamed of creating better life and education opportunities for the people of Appalachia.

Douglas’ adolescent burden for Appalachia stemmed from the ever-giving heart of Norma Ackison, her grandmother.

Ackison was the last of 12 children born to an Appalachain family. Shortly after her birth, her father died, and her mother became the single parent of a dozen children while battling the struggles of a depression era.

Douglas recalled her grandmother sharing with her stories of her childhood when her tattered, out-of-style clothes and newspaper curtains were the target of other kids’ jokes. She was all too familiar with the humiliation and struggles of poverty.

But despite the embarrassments of her adolescence, Ackison grew into a woman her family and community adored and revered. She was constantly aware of those in need around her, and she made provisions in any way she could to help them overcome their needs.

When Ackison passed away from breast and lung cancer in 1991 just six days before her 60th birthday, Douglas was intent on not letting the lessons her grandmother taught be silenced. Cancer could simply not be the final victor, she said.

Douglas and her family were in Ironton visiting her grandfather following the passing of his wife. She stood in line at Pick-n-Save with her mother and two younger siblings and noticed a girl about her age in a T-shirt, shorts and no shoes — it was November.

The girl and her mother held bologna and a loaf of bread, which Douglas said she overheard them say would be Thanksgiving dinner.

In the car moments later, Douglas told her mother she was going to save the world. People were not going to go hungry anymore, and children would have shoes on their feet.

Picking up where grandma left off

It was there in a small-town grocery-store parking lot that a life-changing decision was made, although at the time Douglas had no idea it would not only be the lives of those she would help, but her own life, as well.

With only 11 years of life behind her and the support of her parents, siblings and a few friends, she founded Grandma’s Gifts, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing better life and education opportunities in Appalachia. And at the advice from her mother to start small, Douglas’ first project was to take names from an angel tree and purchase Christmas presents for needy children.

“With the help of my parents, I wrote people who lived in Columbus who went to Ironton High School with my parents,” Douglas said. “I asked them to send donations, but I know it must have been hard to trust an 11 year old with money.”

With the money sent in from her hometown donors, she purchased gifts for three children.

Sixteen years later, Doulgas is still bringing hope – and school supplies, educational programs, field trips and so much more – to Appalachia.

“Looking back, I should have known I was going to be completely addicted to this thing,” she said about Grandma’s Gifts.

Making a difference

Since the organization was founded in 1993, Douglas and her co-volunteers have distributed over 650,000 books to Appalachian schools, 10,000 pounds of canned food to shelters and food banks, countless coats and clothing, thousands of school supplies and a multitude of more necessities. In addition to tangible items, Grandma’s Gifts has been the sponsor for academic programs like COSI on Wheels and trips to the Columbus Zoo.

Last year’s Ohio Make-A-Difference-Day award was presented to Grandma’s Gifts in honor of Trick-or-Teeth, the dental-hygiene project headed up by the organization in conjunction with 11 schools in Columbus. For this project, toothpaste, toothbrushes and dental floss were collected and sent to areas of Appalachia in need of such products, including the Lawrence County and Ironton health departments.

Douglas and her organization utilize local churches as distribution centers for community goods. Recently, Grandma’s Gifts sent over $33,000 in school supplies, coats and toys to the First United Methodist Church in Ironton for them to distribute as they see fit.

In order to distribute the items to the areas that are most in need, Grandma’s Gifts works closely with the Ohio Appalachian Regional Commission. With statistics such as unemployment and poverty rates and the number of children receiving a federal free lunch, the organization can better prioritize their giving.

Inspiring others

Douglas may have had the epiphany that sparked the initiation of the organization, but she certainly is not the only one with a passion for Grandma’s Gifts.

Columbus-resident and Ironton-native Morgan Webb was introduced to the non-profit company in graduate school at Ohio State University when she and Emily became lifelong friends. After her first Thanksgiving canned-food drive at which she volunteered in 2006, she began to develop a love for the organization just as her best friend had done.

From handing out flyers in a Kroger parking lot to her present-day Grandma’s Gift position as vice president of donor relations, Webb has been alongside Douglas in her quest for a better Appalachia.

“I travel with Emily sometimes to elementary and middle schools in Columbus to teach kids about volunteering,” Webb said. “They get so excited to know they can make a difference in this world even though they are 10 years old.”

And in addition to supplying children and their families with the necessities of life, Douglas said education of Appalachian poverty and way-of-life is the mission of the group.

“This organization is important to me because it helps people, especially in my hometown,” Webb said. “The Appalachian region tends to get ignored by groups and charities. There are all kinds of stereotypes about people from Appalachia, and they are not true. I hope by helping with Grandma’s Gifts and educating people about Appalachia, we can put a stop to those stereotypes.”

Although people with ties to Ironton and Appalachia like Douglas and Webb are proactively giving back to the community, donations also come from people who have never even been to the area.

“We’ve had donors from Puerto Rico, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Germany,” Douglas said, naming just a few places the organization’s support money comes from. “Some of these people don’t even have ties to Appalachia. We’ve received support from people in Israel; people who live in countries that are in far worse situations than we are.”

Support has also come from nationally-known names in both financial and morale forms.

“We’ve had donations from Minnie Driver, who just said she thought what we were doing was great,” Douglas said. “We’ve been trying to get a hold of somebody from the Billy Ray Cyrus camp since he is from the area.”

Douglas accepted an invitation to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1998 representing Grandma’s Gifts. A year later she was able to meet former President Bill Clinton. And in February 2007, the ‘Hannity’s America’ honored Douglas as Hero of the Week, featuring a film during their broadcast portraying what she has done with the organization.

In the past four months, Grandma’s Gifts has been mentioned twice in the popular People Magazine. As a result of the 3.1 million copies distributed, Douglas said, the organization saw an income of $53,000 in donations.

But keeping the company going is not a piece of cake. With full-time careers and social lives, Douglas and Webb have to fit hours into the day to keep spreading good through Grandma’s Gifts.

“Emily and I have a lot of late-night phone conversations,” said Webb, who works as a human resources analyst for the Ohio Department of Administrative Services. “One of us will think of an idea and call the other to get their thoughts. Grandma’s Gifts is important to me, so I make time – even if it cuts into my sleep.”

Sleep may have to come a little later in life for these women and their hard-working co-volunteers, because there are more projects in the near future.

Reaching for greater goals

The organization is asking Appalachian residents to submit hometown stories and recipes for an eventual cookbook. The proceeds from the book will go toward donations and food for pantries and kitchens across the 13 states that make up Appalachia.

Douglas and her co-workers are also hoping to sponsor vision screenings to allow children and adults the correct vision aides they may not otherwise be able to afford. All that’s missing is a doctor who will volunteer some time.

“If we can find a doctor who would be willing to donate his time and service, we’ll buy the glasses,” Douglas said.

Possibly the most important venture in the near future for Grandma’s Gifts is acquiring its own tax identification for exemption. The organization currently exists through the Columbus Foundation, a company that manages the finances and provides its tax exemption.

But the problem with operating through the Columbus Foundation is actually a loss in donations.

“Companies will call and offer to donate a million toothbrushes, for example, but they require a receipt” Douglas said, explaining that they can offer receipts for cash donations, but not for in-kind donations. “We think our donations will quadruple when we have our own tax identification (number).”

But for now, the support for Grandma’s Gifts, both financially and emotionally, is enough to make Douglas beam with gratitude.

“We’ve had a lot of support, and the majority of donors are people who live in Columbus who are from Ironton,” she said. “Businesses in Lawrence County who have helped are really why we’re successful. I forever love them. I thank them forever.”

And although it took years to realize she wasn’t just changing others’ lives, she has finally come around.

“Not only has it changed my life,” she said, “but I hope it has changed someone else’s life, too.”