Brightside Project hosts annual Christmas toy drive

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Families wait in line to enter the store at the Brightside Project's Christmas event last year on Dec. 17, 2022. (Submitted photo)

SALEM, Ohio — In 2016, Scott Lewis kept hearing stories about parents in his area struggling with addiction while trying to take care of children. These stories inspired Lewis and his daughter, Lisa Vittorio, to start their nonprofit organization the Brightside Project.

“I said to Lisa, ‘If we’re going to start something, I want to start a non-profit that is strictly for kids in Columbiana County, that helps kids where they’re in homes or situations where they don’t have a choice,’” he recalled.

The organization started in Vittorio’s garage but quickly expanded into a storefront space that hosts numerous outreach and giveaway events throughout the year. One of these events is the Brightside Project’s Christmas event where children select various toys and gift bags.

How it started

As co-founders and co-directors of the Brightside Project, Lewis and Vittorio opened up shop in 2016 with the goal of providing for children in times of need.

They started by collecting donations and hosting outreach events out of Lewis’s house and Vittorio’s garage. However, in 2017, they began looking for a bigger space to conduct their services, eventually moving to a storefront on Broadway Avenue, in Salem, Ohio.

“I remember a friend’s church came in and said, ‘What exactly are you going to be doing here?’ Lisa and I looked at each other and said, ‘We really have no idea what we’re doing. We just know we needed a bigger space.’ And then it evolved.”

After moving into their new space, Lewis and Vittorio opened a food pantry and started hosting relief events, particularly when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. During the pandemic, Vittorio and Lewis drove around in low-income housing developments and handed out bags of food to children.

Around this time, they also enrolled in the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program through a partnership with Columbiana County. Currently, there are 3,200 kids enrolled in the program who receive a book once a month from the Brightside Project.

In 2021, they moved again to a larger space on East Pershing Street. Inspired by the new location, Lewis was eager to get another project off the ground: the Sunshine Bus.

“The Sunshine Bus was the original vision for the Brightside Project. (The plan) was to go into low-income housing developments to take food and personal care straight to the kids,” Lewis said.

After receiving a $10,000 grant from State Farm Insurance, they were able to make their dreams of the Sunshine Bus a reality. While they were renovating the bus in February, a train derailed and caught fire in East Palestine, causing evacuations in the surrounding area.

Vittorio and Lewis “immediately put (the bus) into gear,” traveling to schools and giving kids the opportunity to shop for food, personal care items, books and toys.

Lewis emphasizes the Sunshine Bus is for all kids to use.

“We didn’t want this stigma of the Sunshine Bus only helps poor kids. We didn’t want that,” Lewis said. “By us going into the schools, everybody in the class can come out to the Sunshine Bus.”

The Brightside Project also hosts various other events and outreach programs including Backpack for Kids, Back to School Clothing, Bright Easter and Bright Christmas.

Families wait in line at the Brightside Project’s Christmas event last year on Dec. 17, 2022. (Submitted photo)

Bright Christmas

The Brightside Project’s first Christmas event was held in 2016 at the Salem Memorial Building. That Christmas, they were able to help 20 kids.

“I remember we were there for a couple years, and we had to hand things in through the broken window at the Memorial Building which is crazy,” Lewis laughs.

Last year, they saw a turnout of roughly 700 kids. This year, Lewis is expecting similar numbers, roughly 600 kids, to turn up at their Brightside Christmas event on Dec. 16, which will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 483 East Pershing St., Salem, Ohio, for Columbiana County children ages 3-18.

At the event, the kids will begin by registering at the registration tent. After they register, they’ll start the journey to Toyland.

The first stop is through the North Pole tent where they can meet Santa and Mrs. Claus. Then, they will travel into the warehouse, entering Candy Cane Lane, where they can marvel at various decorations and blow-ups that line the pathway.

At long last, the children will enter Toyland where they will be accompanied by a volunteer to select several toys and receive a stocking stuffer bag.

The Brightside Project helped more than 700 children last year through its Bright Christmas event. (Submitted photo)

The amount of toys kids get to take each year depends on the amount of donations received. Last year, each child was able to select three toys and a board game.

After making their selections in Toyland, the children exit through another tent where they will receive bags of perishable and nonperishable food. The group is looking for any child-friendly food items like mac and cheese cups, yogurt pouches, applesauce cups, ramen noodles — anything they can fix for themselves if needed, Lewis said.

Lewis is excited about this year’s event and expresses gratitude to their partners and the community that make The Brightside Project possible.

“The community has really supported us over the years and I think it’s because we’re helping kids,” Lewis said. “They can see where their money’s going, they can see that it’s going to help the kids. That’s what we say, ‘That’s where your money is coming and that’s where your money is going.'”

Donation requests: The non-profit is requesting donations of gift cards, fragrance sets, plush blankets, art and craft sets, jewelry and watches, skateboards, makeup, hoodies, snack boxes, Legos, baby dolls, Barbie dolls, action figures, cars and trucks, Squishmallows, Hot Wheels, fidgets and more. They will be accepting donations until Dec. 12.

The entire list can be downloaded at www.brightsideprojectohio.org/bright-christmas.

Amazon wishlist: Those interested in donating can view the Bright Christmas Amazon wishlist at amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/1FHQU2SNJXW98/ref=hz_ls_biz_ex.

Donations can be dropped off at the following locations: Summit Federal Credit Union, First Christian Church in Salem, Drayer Physical Therapy Institute, Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, Salem First Friends Church, Team Dawes – Fairway Independent Mortage, Stratton Chevrolet, John Cockerill Industry North, Salem Visting Angels, Pennex, Columbiana County Municipal Courthouse, Jessie’s Closet Boutique, Meraki Beauty Parlor and the Brightside Project.

(Reporter Liz Partsch can be reached at epartsch@farmanddairy.com or 330-337-3419.)

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