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By Annie Bergman, World Ark senior writer
His favorite animal may be the elephant, but this year all Ryan Bell wants for Christmas is a camel.
It's what his sister, Meghan, wants, too. For two years the siblings from Wallingford, Conn., have raised money to buy animals through Heifer International, and if things this year go as well as they have in the past, the pair just might end up with a menagerie.
Ten years ago parents Laura and Ted Bell began a tradition to give to others in need during the holiday season. The inspiration came from the kindness they received from friends and family after the birth of Ryan, who was diagnosed with a cranio-facial disorder called Treacher Collins Syndrome.
Treacher Collins Syndrome, or TCS, affects the bone and soft tissue formation of the face. Ryan has slightly malformed eye, cheek, jaw and ear bones, and his small jaw requires him to use a tracheotomy. The malformation of his ears causes significant hearing loss and requires Ryan to wear special hearing aids.
"Despite our medical obstacles with Ryan, we were blessed with extremely supportive family and friends, we live in an area rich with medical expertise, and we had a child that, despite his challenges, had every potential to live a strong, happy and independent life. We felt the need to share that blessing with others," Laura Bell said in an email to World Ark.
The family has given to others in need through a variety of channels over the past 10 years. One year they "adopted" a family who had lost everything in a natural disaster through The Box Project. In other years they hosted a penny auction, in which each person wrapped a gift to auction off after Thanksgiving dinner, and donated the proceeds to various charities.
In 2009, the Bells received Heifer's gift catalog in the mail. It was then that Laura realized her two children were old enough to grasp the importance of giving back.
"When the first Heifer International magazine arrived in the mail, it dawned on us that the kids were old enough to become part of this process. Could there be a better Thanksgiving lesson than for them to recognize all they had to be thankful for in their lives and to give to others that were less fortunate?" Laura said. "Since both of our kids are animal lovers, Heifer fit perfectly. They sat there glued to the magazine devouring every bit of information on how Heifer animals are used, how the gift is passed on and how lives are changed as a result of the gifts."
Ryan began lobbying to send the proceeds from the penny auction to Heifer. That first year they donated $30 for a trio of rabbits, and the other half of their money went to a local charity.
The children quickly became determined to do better the next year. For Christmas 2010, they wanted to raise $250—enough for a water buffalo.
"My first impression was, "They are nuts! Our penny auction could not possibly fund this type of gift,'" Laura said.
But then Ryan and Meghan came up with "Stocking Stuffers for Charity." The pair sold hot chocolate packets and candy canes to kick-start their quest for the water buffalo.
When family friend Charlene Handel heard about their efforts, she wanted to help. Ryan's "Auntie Charlene" asked him to join her at her booth at a local craft fair, and donated her profits to the brother and sister's fund.
Another woman, Robyn Koons, met the kids for the first time at the craft fair where they were selling their goods. She was so inspired by Ryan that she shared with co-workers about his project. During the week of Christmas, the Bells received an unexpected phone call from Robyn that she wanted to deliver donations from her colleagues to add to Ryan's fundraising efforts.
All told, Ryan and Meghan raised nearly three times their goal: $740.
The project helped Ryan, typically shy around new people because of his TCS, grow and develop his social skills. Laura said she saw her son become a leader and a salesman.
"Ryan does look different and speaks less clearly than other kids because of his Treacher Collins Syndrome. Being accepted by others is a natural human desire, but it's not often easy for any children with facial differences like Ryan. Ryan has struggled—more than he even realizes—to be accepted by others," Laura said.
"Ryan's knowledge base and interest in expanding what he has learned about animals, a desire to teach others what he has learned, and a passion to help other people have all combined in his Heifer work. It provides him his own little "project world' where he does feel accepted, appreciated and approved of by others—not "despite his differences', but because of the difference he is making in the world. Because of his heart."
Ryan said it was a daunting task to speak to people about Heifer at first, but the number of people who seemed interested encouraged him.
"I had to talk to a lot of people and explain about Heifer. Some people even came back to hear more or have us explain it to their friends or family," Ryan said. "I get nervous speaking to new people because I'm not sure they will understand me. This project made me really work on this. It was hard, but watching the results of the fundraising was worth it."
Their success has Ryan and Meghan inspired to learn more about Heifer, and to expand their fundraising efforts.
In August Laura took Ryan and Meghan to Overlook Farm in Rutland, Mass. The family got to meet Abu, the camel, tour the Global Village and even help out on the farm.
"It completely kicked in the kids desire to start their fundraising plans for this year," Laura said. "They sat in the backseat on the way home making new plans and bigger goals."
For this holiday season, the siblings have set their sights on the camel, which will get them $850 closer to their ultimate goal: donating the $5,000 needed to for an entire Ark full of animals for struggling families in countries around the world.
Meghan has declared herself the "money person" this year, a job which Laura supports as she thinks it will bolster the 7-year-old's math skills. Ryan will again steer the campaign.
"Meghan and I want to raise enough money to donate a camel this year. I really want to raise enough money to send an Ark, but that might take a while. We thought about waiting to send in the money until we could purchase two of each animal gift all at once, but sending along the animals as we go along means that people can start using them right away," Ryan said.
While they formulate this year's plan, Ryan dreams of going to Africa to see his beloved elephants. And his mother is enjoying watching her children discover their natural sense of generosity.
"Both of our children grabbed this opportunity by the horns and dragged us along for the ride," Laura said. "Ryan's determination, positive outlook and ability to persevere through obstacles have always been an inspiration to those fortunate enough to get to know him. When we look into those eyes, we see a little hero that touches our life every day."
If you wish to donate to Ryan's Ark, you may do so by visiting his Team Heifer Page.