By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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Photo by Troy Harvey/Ventura County Star

Campers help girl donate stuffed animals for rescuers

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. - Born in Shenyang, China, with a severe cleft lip and palate, Jessica Carscadden was orphaned and banished in a dying room until she was adopted at age 5.

Now 11, the girl hopes to comfort other children through her We Care Bears Project, a charity that involves collecting new and like-new stuffed animals for first-responding police and fire departments that deal with children in a tough place.

"The We Care Bears Project provides instant comfort to kids in unbearable situations," said Jessica, of San Diego.

On Monday at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Jessica told her story and collected donations from children at Camp Helping Hands, a service learning camp with this tagline: "Where kids make a difference."

"Meeting someone like Jessica ... really cements this message and shows kids firsthand how a small idea from a small person can positively affect thousands, if not millions, of people," said Meredith Cornelius, of Thousand Oaks, the camp's founder and CEO.

The campers brought gently used stuffed animals to donate for the cause. After Jessica's presentation, the youngsters sorted the items for pickup by crew members from Ventura County Fire Station 34 in Thousand Oaks.

"We have what we call teddy trauma ... when we respond to any call where there's a child involved and it looks like they need some comforting," said Jack Nosco, fire captain of Station 34. "At our station, we go through a lot of trauma teddys."

Nosco said Jessica's efforts are "awesome," especially for an 11-year-old.

"It's a win-win for her to be able to establish the program, get the collections and get all these kids involved — and, of course, us being in the middle of the conduit of distributing them," Nosco said. "It's just a really nice goodwill program."

Jessica said her project is unusual because it's kids helping kids.

"Most of my donations come from bear drive events like this one," said Jessica, who plans to expand her project on a national level. "Kids automatically know how much a stuffed animal helps kids who are scared or injured and how great it feels to have a bear ... so they really want to help."

Cassandra Libang, a first-time camper with Camp Helping Hands, said hearing Jessica's story brought tears to her eyes.

"She inspired me so much," said Cassandra, 15, of Thousand Oaks. "It really impacted me that at any age ... you don't have to be rich ... to make a difference in the world and help others."

Anya Singh, 11, was affected by the fact that Jessica had no toys when she lived in the orphanage.

"I felt bad that she didn't have a toy. She didn't have anything. Everybody deserves one little thing they can hug or cry with," said Anya, of Westlake. "Now it's amazing how she's doing it for people even though she didn't have it."

Kathleen Carscadden said her daughter was born with an amazing spirit.

"When we adopted her — most kids are crying and they're scared — Jessica grabbed our hands and walked out of the adoption office with these two ... people who couldn't speak to her at first," Carscadden said.

"She smiled from the moment we got her until today."

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