When psychology freshman Peyton Varner was 11 years old, she couldn’t comprehend that the unsheltered individuals she saw living on the street wouldn’t receive any Christmas presents. That year, she asked Santa Claus only for items that she could give to those living on the street, and this led Varner to take the first steps toward establishing Pea’s Blessing Bags.
“I asked for only items that we could put together to make bags to hand them out on Christmas,” Varner said.
Since she was a kid, Varner and her family have spent the holidays together assembling donation bags for the unsheltered community.
In junior high, Varner joined National Charity League (NCL), a philanthropic organization centered around mother-daughter relationships. During her last year in NCL, Varner decided to make Pea’s Blessing Bags an official philanthropy that would go on to partner with NCL, among other organizations.
“It was really cool to grow up and be a part of philanthropies, to now being one of those philanthropies,” Varner said.
Pea’s Blessing Bags is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that delivers “blessing bags” to the unsheltered community in Riverside and the children at Loma Linda Hospital in Southern California.
For the unsheltered community, the volunteers of Pea’s Blessing Bags donate essential items like blankets, toiletries and snacks. For the children’s hospital, the items in the bags range from infant teething toys to adult coloring books. The volunteers also make bags for the nurses working in the hospital and parents of patients.
Varner said she plans to establish a chapter in San Luis Obispo, so she can continue helping people in her new community. Right now, she is putting together a brainstorming team and trying to figure out a setting. In the future, she said she hopes to expand her Cal Poly connections and bring events to campus.
Varner and her team host quarterly events. This quarter Varner held a clothing drive called “Warm Winter Wishes.”
Varner said her mission is to provide the families with hope and stability. She said realistically, her charity is not a solution to the problems of homelessness or sick children. Instead, she said she hopes her blessing bags serve as a symbol of hope.
“My mission is to provide hope and stability to those that may be less fortunate,” she said.
Varner decided to partner with Loma Linda Hospital because she spent a lot of time there when her grandmother was ill with breast cancer.
“She passed away right before I started my nonprofit, so it was kind of hard for me,” Varner said.
Varner said going back to Loma Linda Hospital and giving back to all the people who helped her grandmother was special for her. She was able to maintain relationships with people who knew her grandmother after her passing.
Varner’s close friend and high school senior Ivana Bilaver is one of the original team members for Pea’s Blessing Bags. She is a current patient of Loma Linda Hospital where she is being treated for rheumatoid arthritis.
When Bilaver would go to Loma Linda Hospital for treatments, she said she was affected by the struggles the children there face.
“It really broke my heart to see these little kids that are going through such awful things, so I think it’s really important for me to be able to just give back a little bit,” Bilaver said.
Bilaver said she was proud of Varner for starting Pea’s Blessing Bags and happy to be a part of the team, which she said feels like a family.
Varner said that Pea’s Blessing Bags is a very family-oriented organization. It started with Varner’s own family and has grown to include a larger family of volunteers and the community they serve.
Varner said she encourages the volunteers to make connections with the people they work with and that she believes these connections are at the heart of Pea’s Blessing Bags.
“I’ve learned that they love the stuff… but being able to talk to them and hear their stories is so meaningful to them,” Varner said. “As much as an impact as [we’re] making on them, they are making just the same impact on my volunteers and me.”
“As much as an impact as [we’re] making on them, they are making just the same impact on my volunteers and me.”
The name Pea’s Blessing Bags comes from Varner’s childhood nickname. Varner said that when she was a child, her family would read the book “Little Pea” to her. Pea then became her new nickname.
Varner said she chose the name to honor her father who was instrumental in starting up Pea’s Blessing Bags.
“It was kind of a tribute to my dad because he has been incredibly helpful and inspiring,” Varner said.
As a child, Varner’s father Sean Varner would spend Christmas helping families in need. He said he is proud of Varner for continuing this legacy.
“I remember the intense emotion of seeing the families’ gratitude and how that gratitude impacted me,” Sean wrote in an email to Mustang News. “I am thrilled to see my children continue that legacy.”
He said that Varner did much of the work to set up her non-profit completely on her own.
“She helped with the paperwork, signed the documents, met with bank officials, and created her own nonprofit as [a] 17-year-old teenager,” he wrote. “On her own, Peyton has made several relationships with the nonprofit community in Riverside.”
One of these key relationships is with Riverside’s chapter of NCL and the organization’s Philanthropy Vice President Kim Hansen. Hansen said that NCL focuses on helping the girls learn leadership skills and charity — values she said she sees in Varner.
She said that Varner serves as an inspiration for younger girls in NCL
“It was huge for the girls to see what Peyton was doing and that they can continue on with this,” Hansen said.
Hansen said that NCL still assembles and distributes the blessing bags.
“It gave so many girls an opportunity to get more experience and do some philanthropy hours,” she said.