A Thank You call from Newtown dad Chris Wenis to toy inventor Geoff Roesch has resulted in a friendship and toy donation to help the children of Newtown sleep at night.
Like many children in Sandy Hook, Chris and Wende Wenis’ five-year old son had fears that made bedtime difficult.
“Our son was having nightmares and was worried an intruder would enter his room,” said Mrs Wenis. “We were doing all we could, including family counseling,” she continued, “but nighttime was still really hard on our son.”
Determined to help her 5-year old, Mrs Wenis stumbled across a bedtime toy while researching ways to help her son with his night fears.
“We were grasping at straws at that point,” said Mr Wenis, “and to be honest, we didn’t think a toy could help.”
But the toy did help. So much so that the couple’s son began to sleep alone again in his room for the first time since 12/14 and his bad dreams began to fade. The toy was a Starshine Watchdog.
The toys are floppy-eared dogs, available in blue (named Orion) and pink (Skye), and they promise to “conquer the dark with remote starlights.”
Each Starshine Watchdog is 10 inches wide by 11 inches high. A yellow star is on the front of each doll, and when a child pushes on the star on their Watchdog a pair of separate small plastic, battery-operated stars lights up. Parents are encouraged to put the remote lights in places that tend to be scariest for their children: under the bed, by the closet, near a window.
When a child squeezes their dog’s paw, they are additionally comforted with a phrase like “Don’t worry, I’m here” and “I’ll keep watch while you dream.”
The toy was designed for children who have trouble sleeping.
“We were so grateful for the positive change,” said Mr Wenis, “that I wanted to let the person who made this toy know the good their invention was doing.”
Geoff Roesch was working at his desk in his small toy invention company in Los Angeles when he got the call.
“It was my attorneys,” said Mr Roesch, “and they told me to sit down, because they had something important to explain.”
Mr Roesch’s attorneys told him they had been contacted by a parent from Sandy Hook who wanted to speak with him about the inventor’s new bedtime toy, Starshine Watchdogs.
“I had no idea why a parent from Sandy Hook would want to talk with me,” said Geoff. “I was nervous actually, but of course I took the call.”
The phone call lasted over an hour and by the end, Mr Wenis and Mr Roesch were determined to do something good together.
“The call was the most humbling and meaningful thing that has ever happened to me as a toy creator,” said Mr Roesch. “We’re just a three-person company, but we work incredibly hard to make good toys. We never imagined though, that one of our toys might be used for something as meaningful and important as helping the families in Sandy Hook.”
Mr Wenis explained to Mr Roesch all the community was doing to help the children of Newtown recover following 12/14, and asked if Starshine Watchdogs might be used in local therapy groups and within families that needed the toys. The two men immediately set to work organizing a donation, with other members of town joining the effort.
Robin Fitzgerald and her team at Newtown Volunteer Taskforce were invited into the conversation at that point.
“We first heard about the toys from Jen Welton at Reed Intermediate School and Tracy Jaeger, president of Newtown’s PTA,” said Mrs Fitzgerald. “Parents were beginning to independently talk about the toys so we knew they were something the town needed. The community receives incredible support from so many people and this donation was especially useful because of its unique feature and specific purpose to help kids overcome fear at night.”
Mr Roesch’s small company team at Volcano LLC — including daughter Montana Roesch and business partner Brian Frisch, along with friends Sergei Medvedev and Serge Zabarin — set to work preparing the toys.
The Volcano team coordinated a large shipment with Jonathan Kelly of Kellytoy, the manufacturer and distributor of Starshine Watchdogs.
“Everyone got to work doing anything needed to get the toys to Newtown,” said Mr Frisch. Even Mr Roesch’s mother, Helen Williams, helped prepare the toy packages and traveled with her son in the truck to Sandy Hook to help with the deliveries. Mrs Williams not only traveled across the country with her son, she also financed the donation.
Tracy Schmid, owner of The Toy Tree in Sandy Hook, joined the project to help connect with different families and schools.
Mr Roesch and his mother spent Friday, February 15, with friends in Wallingford, and then arrived at The Toy Tree in Sandy Hook the following morning. After hours of phone calls and a number of emails, the toy inventor and the Sandy Hook father finally met for the first time.
“It was really powerful to meet Chris after a month of calls, emails and planning,” said Mr Roesch. “I was even able to meet Chris’ incredible son.”
With a truck full of toys, led by the Wenises and their son, Mr Roesch set out to make deliveries to Sandy Hook Elementary/Chalk Hill School, Hawley Elementary School, Fraser Woods School, Head O’ Meadow Elementary School, Middle Gate Elementary School, Wesley Learning Center and The Children’s Adventure Center, where Mr Roesch and his mother were given a personal tour by the Center’s Director, Judy Sims.
“Judy is a pillar of courage and positive energy,” said Mrs Williams. “I was impressed with all she was doing at CAC.”
Mr Roesch echoed his mother’s comments a few days later, when he told Ms Sims that she is “a rock … if the kids at the Adventure Center absorb even a fraction of your courage, passion and positive attitude, they’re going to be just fine.”
By the end of their travels around town, the toys had been delivered to seven locations, all to be handed out to the students in coming days.
“We started the day with a truck full of toys and ended that night with a new family of friends,” said Mr Roesch.
“I think everyone in the world wants to do something to help the families in Sandy Hook,” Mr Wenis continued. “I felt honored to work with the town’s incredibly strong and caring volunteers and community members. I wish all the families, children and parents of Sandy Hook the strength and courage they need to find healing and a place of peace in their lives.”
Eleven days after his visit to Connecticut, Mr Roesch contacted The Bee to offer an update.
“The story is ongoing,” he said February 26. “I am working with Chris [Wenis] and Tracy Schmid to come back and do a fun kids talk on creating toys. I’m arranging to bring a great, small team with me, including an illustrator, model maker, electronics wizard, packaging designer and even a few character voice over artists. We’ll show how a few toys were made, from idea to finished product, and then have the kids cook up an idea with us.
“I’m also hoping to form a Sandy Hook Kids Toy Review Group that will get to review and comment on toys from lots of different companies before any other kids in the world see the toys.”