Stuffed Love: Increasing Hope, Love, and Community Connection

I first heard about HOBY through a local Rotarian that knew my dad. Jody had gotten to know me through my volunteerism around my community, and thought I would be a great fit to attend a HOBY program! Her club helped fundraise the cost of attending the winter 2014 Advanced Leadership Academy and I was very excited to go and learn more about leadership.

Initially, I did not know anything about HOBY. Prior to Jody reaching out, I had already attended a few different youth leadership conferences, so when I got the invitation for HOBY, I figured it would be something like those. I found that all those conferences were fun and a great way to meet youth leaders across the world, so I figured HOBY would be no different!

HOBY has impacted me in so many ways. I don’t think I was prepared at all to return home from ALA as a completely new version of myself. One of the biggest impacts HOBY had on me was increasing my confidence and sense of leadership. I didn’t feel like I needed to worry about what others thought about me or feel nervous that I wasn’t a good enough leader anymore. I walked around with a new sense of who I was and what I wanted to do in the world. After my program year, I knew I wanted to keep coming back and continue to grow HOBY’s mission. Now, each seminar season is my annual recharge for my confidence, energy, and passion. I love engaging people in my community in service, leadership, and HOBY’s mission, and can’t wait to have some of my friends volunteer with me!

When I first arrived at ALA, I was incredibly nervous and exhausted. My flight had been canceled, I ended up flying out 12 hours later than expected, and my luggage got lost when I finally made it to Alabama – at that point, I was wondering if trying to get to HOBY was even worth it. I missed a whole day of programming, and I was worried I’d never catch up. But the second I walked in, my group recognized that I was the last member they were waiting for, and I was immediately welcomed in with enthusiasm and love. I still remember the excited cheers of “oh my gosh! You’re our last banana!” from my beloved yellow #bananaswag group. Receiving that much love and positivity from absolute strangers made me feel so welcome and excited for the rest of my HOBY experience.

Being on staff is filled with countless favorite HOBY memories. Seeing the aha! moment in my group, helping to lead cheers, and experiencing the same sense of connection and acceptance from my ambassadors is so rewarding. A story I frequently tell as my favorite moment of being a volunteer came from my first time as a junior facilitator. During identity circles, one of the shy, quiet members of my group listed liking nerdy TV shows as part of his identity. Without even thinking about it, I immediately responded: “I like those shows too!”. He lit up, and we spent plenty of downtime chatting about our favorite shows and games together. By the end of the seminar, he was extremely outgoing and had made plenty of friends with other ambassadors for the same nerdy TV shows he nervously admitted he liked. During our group reflection times, he mentioned that the seminar was one of the first times he’s felt so accepted and loved. This echoed my own HOBY experience as well as surprised me that a moment of such a simple connection of favorite shows could make such an impact.

I learned so much at HOBY, but some of my biggest takeaways are the different ways leadership can present itself, and how personal leadership can be utilized to boost confidence and overall leadership skills. I utilize lollipop moments and SMART goals very frequently beyond just HOBY – from the classroom to my student involvement, these are lessons I try to spread to others. I love the concept that leadership can happen in huge and tiny ways. Terming those leadership acts as lollipop moments has given me a new way to express gratitude and think of myself as a leader. Learning more about personal leadership helped grow my self-acceptance and confidence, and shifted my identity towards confidently embracing my role as a leader.

I make an effort to return to staff each year and help continue HOBY’s mission. I love working with state seminars and seeing how each program runs, and have been incredibly honored and excited to work on the program team for HOBY Illinois-North. I also work to share HOBY’s leadership lessons in my other volunteer and mentorship roles – from SMART goals and action planning to thinking about identities and personal leadership growth, HOBY has many takeaways that are incredibly helpful. I also continue to push myself as a leader by taking new roles and responsibilities and challenging myself to see how I can best serve my community and world.

I was inspired to create Stuffed Love after working on my assigned service hours in eighth grade and realizing that I really enjoyed volunteering. I loved my ability to make an impact on my community – be it my school, local community, or neighborhoods across Chicago, I was excited to make a difference, even as a fourteen-year-old. I wanted to utilize my ability to volunteer and serve in my own way and thought about the things I could do. I wanted to help address the emotional needs of individuals, so I combined my love for crafting and stuffed animals with my desire to serve my community and came up with Stuffed Love. My hope was to provide a tangible reminder for individuals in need that they are loved and cared for, just as stuffed animals did for me when I was young.

I want to impact my community with Stuffed Love by increasing hope, love, and community connection. Many of the communities that I serve – such as veterans, individuals and families affected by diseases like congenital heart defects, individuals facing homelessness and poverty – are going through incredibly difficult times that may make them feel very alone or that their struggles are insurmountable. It is often hard to reach out when things feel hopeless, especially when their situations are stigmatized. By providing a tangible, hand-stitched reminder of love and support, I hope to be that little bit of hope. I know that a small hand-stitched heart pillow will not solve poverty, disease, or social stigma, but it provides hope and love. When I give out pillows to groups like the Pediatric Congenital Heart Association, this helps bridge a community together and provide a memento of everything those families have survived. Most importantly, I hope to inspire the next generation of youth leaders in getting more involved in service and volunteering in their community. Every person has an ability to make an impact on the world around them and hearing that I helped inspire youth to volunteer or start a service project is my biggest point of pride.

My future plans for Stuffed Love are to continue growing! My mission, “to be that little bit of hope for those in need”, is intentionally left open because there are countless groups and individuals that can use a bit of hope. I would love to work with new issue areas and hope to expand into new organizations and causes soon. I will carry out my goals for Stuffed Love through accountability (SMART goals!), community, and utilizing my team of volunteers and supporters.

Being a youth leader is an amazing and exciting journey. Jump in with both feet, and don’t be afraid to start something. It is so easy to talk yourself out of your ideas for changing the world – use those around you to keep you accountable and grounded to your goals. You also don’t need to change the entire world. Changing a part of your community, however small, is an excellent way to start. You have knowledge on issues in your community that others may not have any idea of, and you have the ability to do something about them. Dig into your community to help lead. Utilize your friends, classmates, teachers, principals, local volunteer leaders, HOBY community, everyone! Leadership does not have to and should not be a lonely process, and you will find so many rewards in growing your team and network.

HOBY is important because it truly serves to engage and empower youth leaders. Seeing the HOBY shift – when ambassadors go from shy and nervous in their seats to engaged and excited within the first hour of the seminar – again and again is proof that HOBY starts impacting people almost immediately. Hearing the feedback during final reflections of ambassadors finding connection, love, and a new passion for their goals shows me that they are taking something incredibly powerful away from the seminar. HOBY is an incredible growth period for all ambassadors and volunteers, and I don’t think anyone comes away from it without learning something new. Youth leadership, in general, is important because our youth are some of the most vocal changemakers in any community. They see the things that adults may have accepted as fact as changeable, and they are willing to do the work. Empowering new generations of youth is immensely important in providing the foundations for how society will change going forward.

Sarah Dynia graduated from Northwestern University in 2019 with a degree in Neuroscience. She attended HOBY’s Advanced Leadership Academy in 2014 and has been volunteering with HOBY ever since at ILCS, ILCN and Wisconsin’s state seminars. Sarah founded a nonprofit called Stuffed Love, which sends hand-stitched heart pillows to those in need of hope and love, which has impacted over 3,500 individuals. She has successfully balanced her academic excellence with numerous leadership roles, including Science Bowl captain, president of Women in Science and Engineering, and co-president of the Junior Classical League.

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