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Published: Tuesday, 4/8/2003

Dark times spur desire to help out

Of all the words to describe the impact of war, “inspirational'' doesn't usually top the list, but that's precisely the effect of the U.S.-Iraq war on Tami Matthews.

If her name sounds familiar, it's probably because Toledo reporters have given decent coverage to Operation: Care, Tami's brainchild to help struggling military families left behind by those called up for national service.

“I was sitting in the living room Tuesday [March 18], just watching the news about this impending war, and I thought, `The families! There needs to be something for these families,''' recounted the mother of four.

Tami zoomed from zero to 60 in three short weeks. Today she is at the VFW Frankowski Post 5530, getting ready for a 6 p.m. Operation: Care rally, where she and other volunteers expect to collect donations to military families of such necessities as diapers and canned goods.

The 38-year-old Oregon woman also hopes more businesses will join the two or so dozen she already marshaled to offer free or discounted products and services - just as she does at the Genoa daycare she owns, where military families can now take advantage of child care at no charge.

“After I was able to get all these wonderful people on board so quickly, I thought, `Look what can be done!' I'm in awe at how quickly this has come together,'' she says.

Tami is so bowled over she's thinking seriously about another idea - this one for low-income kids - that she's long had in the back of her mind, based on the simple idea that childhood play is all about learning.

Before she started her day-care business, Tami was employed by the board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities to work with infants and toddlers from poor families.

“We used to take a bag of toys with us when we visited. Real simple toys that are really good for the kids to practice fine-motor skills or cognitive skills - shape sorters, puzzles, Lincoln Logs. These are the toys kids need to develop skills they use in school, not electronic toys. And I started thinking that these kids really need these toys ... for more than just an hour. ''

But for Tami, playthings were just one piece of the puzzle.

“I heard about the Toledo schools and the problems they had getting parents involved, and I began thinking about linking this with toys. If we got kids early enough, then both kids and parents could benefit. Maybe that's a really simple idea, but sometimes simple is good. ''

Yet Tami found the logistics of her simple idea surprisingly complicated.

She called everyone for help - including the mayor and the Toledo school superintendent - and, while all were encouraging, “they don't have the time or means to help me get it going. I just want people to hook me up in the right direction to get this going. I'm just an average person here. I don't know how to do these things. I'm one of those who believes where there's a will, there's a way. I have the will, but I don't have the way.''

Not yet, anyway. But reinvigorated by Operation: Care, Tami is ready to take a deep breath and try again.

“People really underestimate their own power, but I'm not going to. I can make a difference.''


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