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SALTWATER PORTRAIT

Lewes sisters Puja and Riya Jani excel in gift of giving

Lovey Buddies collects stuffed animals for less fortunate
Riya, left, and Puja Jani collect stuffed animals for children in need. MELISSA STEELE PHOTO
December 27, 2016

A case of summer doldrums has morphed into an effort to help children for two Lewes sisters who collect stuffed animals for kids who need them.

Lovey Buddies is the brainchild of Puja and Riya Jani, whose parents, Uday and Neepa Jani, encouraged them during summer break to think about ways to give back to their community.

"We wanted to do something that kids can connect to. We decided to collect stuffed animals for kids who need them, so they could have a stuffed animal or friend. Something to hug," said Riya.

Riya, 11, and Puja, 12, speak quickly and smile frequently when they talk about their new-found passion.

Their goal was to collect 1,000 lightly used stuffed animals. They have already exceeded that goal, and the stuffed animals keep coming. "We've even received boxes of brand-new toys mailed to us," dad Uday said, after carrying five bags of donations into the basement.

"I thought we'd get 200, but I didn't think it would get this big," said Riya.

The girls placed bins in their father's physician office on Route 9, and in Puja's class at Sussex Academy. Puja put her artistic talents to work creating colorful, hand-decorated fliers that were posted throughout the community and on a Facebook page named Lovey Buddies. The Facebook page is growing, with posts, pictures and videos detailing the girls' ongoing efforts.

In one video, Puja speaks clearly and stands with confidence and poise as she describes the project to members of Rehoboth Beach Sunrise Rotary. She exhibits the same maturity as she speaks at the beginning of a recent Races2Run 5K event in another video.

Puja writes meticulously in a journal, keeping a running account of how many animals the sisters have collected and where the stuffed animals have gone. The journal's pages are stuffed with thank-you notes from many organizations that received donations.

In October, the girls loaded up a van full of stuffed animals and passed them out to several local organizations: Casa San Francisco in Milton, Catholic Charities, Nursus 'N Kids and The Crisis House in Georgetown.

"The Crisis Center gives baskets with everything they need and also puts a Lovey Buddy in there," said Riya.

They haven't met any of the children who have received a Lovey Buddy – among them children who have been placed in emergency shelters following a parent's arrest – but the girls can now appreciate hardships many young Sussex County residents endure.

Puja takes in praise from others with a grain of salt and appears to understand the importance of what she's doing with a knowledge of someone much older. "I mostly did it because I wanted to help my community," she said.

Uday said he is impressed with the response to his daughters' efforts, and it warms his heart to hear about how others have given back. "People have told me how they have discussed giving back to the community with their families and kids," he said.

Still young and with plenty of options, the girls take their studies seriously with homework time blocked out each night.

"I'm focused on working hard now so I can do something in the future," Puja said. "Samesies," adds Riya with a playful smile.

Free time is spent with friends, having sleepovers and other girl stuff, or taking their athletic Lab-mix, Nala, out for a run. "She runs like a cheetah," exclaims Riya, an athlete herself who, despite her pint-size, emphatically proclaims she loves basketball.

The girls said they will continue to accept donations as long as people are willing to donate. As they reach out to the community, they continue to find more need. Police officers have taken some stuffed animals to pass out to children on their rounds, while others may end up in strategically placed baskets at social service reception rooms throughout the county.

"Any charity who needs it, we'll be happy to donate," Uday said.

For more information on the Lovey Buddies project, message them on Facebook at Lovey Buddies, call Uday Jani's office at 302-684-0990 or drop off lightly worn stuffed animals at his office located at 28312 Lewes-Georgetown Highway, Milton.