More than a half-million children are abused or neglected each year, according to data from the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and in Denver nearly 1,000 kids were placed in foster care every month in 2017. For Darryl Herrington and Michael Balusek, two friends who worked together as youth treatment counselors from 2013 to 2018 at the Tennyson Center for Children—a Denver-based treatment facility for kids who have experienced abuse or trauma—their experiences made them realize that they could do more for vulnerable kids in the metro area.

Herrington, who has a background in psychology and a passion for helping youth, came to Balusek with the idea of starting a nonprofit that would provide kids with activities and games like the ones that children enjoyed at the Tennyson Center. Balusek, who has been working with youth for the past 16 years, immediately got on board. In November 2018, the pair founded Heart Crate, an organization that ships personalized boxes full of games, toys, comics, journals, and more directly to children’s homes. The goodies allow kids be kids, but ultimately show children they have people looking out for them, when perhaps they thought they didn’t have anyone at all. Within the first year, Balusek and Herrington hope to send out 1,000 Heart Crate boxes to kids in the community.

Children can be referred to Heart Crate through approved agencies like schools or other child welfare nonprofits. While some kids referred to Heart Crate are in the foster care system, it’s not a requirement, yet many kids involved have been abused, neglected, traumatized, or underprivileged in various ways.

Once referred, Heart Crate gathers information about the child’s passions and hobbies through questionnaires mailed to the families. Often, these questionnaires serve as more than just an information resource; when parents or guardians and kids fill them out together, the questions can work as a tool to bring them closer. Heart Crate uses the information to create goody-boxes that are specifically tailored to each child’s interests. The idea behind the heartfelt package is to assist in building kids’ identities; something the organization associates with the positive idea of “geek-culture”—a key aspect of Heart Crate’s philosophy.

To Heart Crate, being a “geek” means joining a judgment-free, inclusive community of people who share a particular interest, be it Spider Man or fashion, and shedding a positive light on things that might normally be considered nerdy. In turn, the boxes encourage kids to embrace what they love.

“Once you know your identity and you’re confident in who you are,” Balusek says, “you can talk about your interests with other people and become part of a community.”

Initially, Heart Crate consisted of just Balusek and Herrington. Now, the board of directors includes alcohol and drug counselor Mike Foster, risk analyst and compliance specialist Barry Peterson, youth outreach volunteer Tina Ibbott, and podcasters Scott Johnson and Brian Ibbott of The Morning Stream. Together, the team is working to help each child build a positive self-image, and let them know that they’re cared for, no matter their circumstances.

Get Involved: You can help Heart Crate by donating online or sending toys, comic books, and other children’s items to: Heart Crate, 106 W. 4th Ave., Longmont, CO 80501