‘Operation Kokonut’ helps The Salvation Army bring joy to children in Macon, Georgia

By: Jennifer McNaughton

When 9-year-old Kayla Hedden and her mother, Angela, walked into The Salvation Army of Georgia’s headquarters office on a Wednesday morning, they carried two oversized boxes of hand-made stuffed animals and had smiles from ear to ear. Kayla’s Miss Georgia sash was draped proudly across her torso, and she was eager to hand off the stuffed animals – knowing that they’d bring joy to children somewhere in Georgia.

Although this was the first time they had come to The Salvation Army to donate stuffed animals, this was hardly the first time Kayla and Angela had done this type of delivery before; The Salvation Army was simply one stop out of many.

For the last two years, Kayla and Angela have teamed up to bring “Operation Koconut” to life – a heartfelt initiative where they design, stuff, and distribute stuffed animals to comfort children in need. In that time, they have created over 150 stuffed animals and delivered them to sick children in hospitals. It has also been a prominent part of Kayla’s beauty pageant community service platform, and there are plans for it to grow on a much larger scale in the future.

Each stuffed animal – or “koconut” as Kayla calls them – is completely unique in design. As of now, all the koconuts are shaped like dogs, but no two patterns are the same.

“All of the koconut patterns and ribbons are unique on purpose,” said Kayla. “Because every child is unique, they should have something that reflects that.”

The idea came about after Kayla spent some time in the hospital herself and took comfort in her stuffed animal monkey whose name is Koconut.

“When I was in the hospital and volunteers would drop off gifts and games, it would make me feel so much better,” said Kayla. “Even when I was feeling horrible, those little things brightened up my day and made me realize that people cared about me.”

Since hospitals had been the primary recipient of Operation Koconut for the last few years, Kayla and Angela recently decided to branch out to include other organizations that helped children in need – organizations like The Salvation Army.

“I had this strong feeling – something that I can only describe as a calling – that we needed to expand Operation Koconut’s reach to include The Salvation Army,” said Angela. “When I think of The Salvation Army, the words ‘God’s work’ immediately comes to mind, and that’s why I’ve always liked this organization.”

The donations from Kayla and Angela’s visit were sent to The Salvation Army of Macon, Ga., where they were gifted to children in its emergency shelter. In a time of chaos, uncertainty, and confusion, those children – similar to Kayla – will realize that they are cared for too.

“Thoughtful donations like these truly make a difference in a child’s life,” said Major Rebekah Poole, the presiding officer for The Salvation Army in Macon. “Years from now, these children will look back on this difficult time in their life and remember the joy that this donation brought them. ‘Thank you’ doesn’t even begin to describe how grateful we are for our donors’ generosity.”

Jennifer McNaughton is the communications specialist for The Salvation Army’s Georgia Division and this story was originally published here.