Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Toy Drive

I've done quite a few things working for non-profits but by far, the best and hardest thing I have ever done was run an annual toy drive at Children's Home Society of Florida for 500 to 600 children who had been abused, abandoned and neglected.    I was playing Santa for kids to whom a present for the holidays meant everything and it was a huge responsibility to get it right.    I liked working behind the scenes with a team of elves to help St. Nick bring hope to these kids who needed it most during that time of year.  Short of raising my own kids, it's probably the most important thing I've ever done.   

Back in the early 90s, Children's Home Society (CHS) had emergency shelters for young children, an infant center for abused, abandoned and crack babies, a daycare program for kids with HIV, group homes for teens, HIV foster care and regular foster care.   In an average month, they had between 500 to 600 kids who needed services.   I worked in the administrative offices which was on the second floor of the emergency shelter.   You'd often see the children as they were entering the shelter.  Sometimes they were very scared - sobbing and clutching the hands of their caseworker or sometimes very happy like they were checking into a hotel holding all their possessions in nothing more than garbage bags.   I would look out my window and see those children be very reserved their first few days at the shelter, but once they got a warm bed to sleep in, three meals a day and a predictable schedule, they really began to thrive and smile - seeing that always made me work harder.  

When I first took over the toy drive, it seemed like the kids in McLamore Emergency Shelter got the lion's share of the gifts - after all they were the ones that people could see and visit.   We'd have all sorts of well meaning groups bring tons of toys and sweets to the 22 shelter kids not realizing that it was the literal tip of the CHS iceberg.   There was no one person handling the donations, so the program managers that had contacts with community groups were the ones that got presents for their kids - the ones who didn't have the time or connections to ask, went without a gift for their kids for the holidays.   To me this was not a fair situation - no child in the program should wake up on Christmas morning without a present to open.  I decided to take on the entire drive to make sure that every child in the programs got something for Christmas.   So as the CHS "Santa" I would ask the program managers to get lists from each of their kids.  I would then type each Christmas list into an excel list and sort it by program, age, sex of the child, program and donor company if I had one.   That was as computerized as you could get in the early 90's and I was able to keep track of the toys coming in and what to send out. 

The first year was a learning curve.   It was hard getting the managers who had their contacts to open up and share for fear that their kids would lose out but once you explained that there were kids in the programs that barely got anything - maybe one toy from the Dollar Store that their case managers bought them versus the kids who got 10 to 20 gifts that were worth hundreds of dollars from other donors - they saw the light.  I got access to a large office space to sort the toys as they came in.  I needed to get the deadlines from the foster care programs because their items needed to be ready two weeks before Christmas so that the case workers could have plenty of time to deliver them to their clients who lived all over Miami.   We needed to tell our donors not to wrap them because we needed to see if they were appropriate.   We once had a well meaning person donate a father and son boxing set which under normal circumstances would have been fine but as a gift for an abused child, not so much.  

I coordinated with businesses and got them to adopt a program and gave them the wish lists which sometimes I had to modify.   The teen girls would ask for half carat diamond earrings and large TVs which was understandable but not realistic - so we'd ask for gift cards, costume jewelry and small TVs they could have in their rooms.  I always asked for books for the kids that were age appropriate and the donors got to pick those - it gave them a chance to share the joy of the Cat in the Hat, Hop on Pop, and Good Night Moon with another child.    The important thing was to give them a good Christmas but not one so extravagant that when they got placed in a home it would be hard for their parents, foster parents or new parents to live up to the a very grandiose CHS Christmas.    

I learned to start contacting businesses in September to get on their radar and ask if they wanted to do a general toy drive or adopt a program.  I would make sure to ask for batteries for all those toys that needed them.    I learned that kids from ages 4 to 10 got the largest number of the donations so I had to educate people that we had infants and teens in the programs and they needed things too, like gift cards for the kids 14 and up and socks, diapers, onsies and pajamas for the infants.   

By mid December my office would became Santa Central.  Toys coming in every hour on the hour.   I also had people asking me every 30 minutes where their toys were even through their deadline was a few days away.   The interruptions became so bad that I decided I needed a spokesperson who would answer the gift questions for me.   So I would find a talking Barbie, put a ribbon around her and wear her on my neck.  When some asked me for the 20th time that day when their presents would be ready, I'd ask my spokes model who usually had some words of wisdom like "I love the sun!",  "Ken and I are going shopping!" and "My job is great."   I would smile and tell them they had their answer and I would call them when their gifts were ready. 

Each year, the drive got bigger and bigger and I would end up working 10, 11 12 hours a day for a month leading up to Christmas and managed to lose seven pounds each year because I never had time to eat.   It didn't matter, getting the presents to those kids was the most important thing.   I needed to give them their faith back and let them know that people cared about them.    I was usually exhausted by Christmas Eve and wondered how Kris Kringle did it.   I only had 600 kids to help - he had billions. 

We'd usually have people bring toys unannounced on December 23rd or Christmas Eve hoping to save the day but the toys had already been distributed or were ready to be placed under the tree at the shelters for Christmas morning.  What we did with those toys was put them in the gift closet so that kids could have a present on their birthdays or we'd give the extreme overflow to charities whose toy drives were not going so well. 

Once the holidays were over, I'd clean up my office and get back into my regular schedule.   I'd wonder how Christmas morning at those homes and shelters went.   I knew that me and the CHS team had pulled off another Christmas miracle and all our kids had a wonderful day.    A week after Christmas, one of the case workers named Andrea called me and I could tell she was holding back tears.   "Are you okay?" I asked trying to figure out what was wrong.   "I just got a call from Octavos' mother -" she said quietly.   I know that Octavos was in the HIV daycare program and I really wanted to make sure that they had a good Christmas since his mother had full blown AIDS and Octavos was HIV positive.  "He didn't get his gifts?" I asked as my heart sank.   "Yes, yes,  he did get his gifts and it was wonderful.   His mom is very sick and could barely talk but she kept on saying 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.'  I thought you might want to know."   We were both quiet and you could hear us both sniffing on each end of the phone.   "I wanted you and your donors to know what a difference it made to that family."   I thanked her for sharing that, closed my office door and cried while I heard the sounds of the McLamore kids play outside with their new toys.  I learned later that it was the last Christmas that Octavos and his mother would ever spent together.  She died a few months later and Octavos died that fall.   
I guess that people who give to toy drives don't always get to see the faces of the kids they help on Christmas morning  - they are with their own families having fun or trying to prevent a meltdown either from a child or an in-law, but I can tell you from my experience that anything that you can do helps.   It doesn't even have to be for kids, it can be the elderly who are in assisted living or nursing homes, they need things too like blankets, socks or big print books.   It doesn't matter if you can give money.   Volunteers that help sort cans for food, clothing or toys drives are priceless.   Just call the charity you want to help in advance and ask what they need.   Trust me, they will be grateful that you asked first and will be more than happy to let you know.   Because my guess is that there will be a Santa's Helper on the other side of the line who hasn't had time for lunch but who believes in what they are doing so much that they don't need have a spokes Barbie to say "My job is great!"

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