Small toys go a long away — to Iraq

They are nothing more than small plush bean-stuffed toy animals with heart-shaped red tags hanging off an ear or limb.

They started a collector’s craze but now those same collectors are sharing some of their prized collectibles with children in need of a little cheering up.

Beanie Baby collectors across the country have responded to the call of a U.S. soldier to send Beanies — along with school supplies, candy and snacks — to be distributed to children in Baghdad.

For many Iraqi children, the Beanies they receive from U.S. soldiers are the first toys they have ever owned.

As of Tuesday, Beanies For Baghdad has received 7,369 Beanies, along with 1,500 school supplies, according to the BeaniesForBaghdad Web site.

Local Beanie collector Marybeth Connaughton, of Stafford, shipped quite a few of her own Beanies to Baghdad. She found out about the program through a Beanie Baby Web site and got involved.

“You know if only one of these children has one kind thought of an American 20 years from now, when they are grown themselves, it could make the difference in our world,” Connaughton said.

Although she has run out of Beanies to send herself, Connaughton volunteered to ship Beanies for others who might be interested in sending some of their collections to Baghdad. Connaughton said shipping the Beanies to an APO address has cut down on shipping costs — her last shipment of 30 Beanies cost $6 to send.

Some collectors have searched yard sales, and even traded some of their rare Beanies online with other collectors in exchange for larger quantities of more common Beanies to ship to Iraq.

Organizers ask for shipments of Beanie Babies, other small stuffed animals or dolls and school supplies, cautioning that Beanies with religious themes should not be included. Soldiers sort and distribute the Beanies to schools, dental units, hospitals and other programs that are helping to rebuild Iraq, often on their own time and sometimes sacrifice sleep to deliver the toys, Connaughton said.

U.S. Army Maj. Jim Barker started the call for Beanies while he was stationed in Iraq during the war. According to the BeaniesForBaghdad Web site, the Beanie project began when Barker gave a little Iraqi girl the “Courage” Beanie Baby that his sister had given him when he shipped out.

The initial response to Barker’s call for Beanies brought in more than 2,000 toys in the first week.

Though Barker was redeployed shortly after he started the program, he turned over operations to U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Kirk Wallace, who continues to receive shipments of Beanies. Wallace plans to pass the program on to someone else after his tour of duty ends in early 2004.