The office has a number of programs to encourage donations around Christmas, not just by running fundraising and donation drives, but by providing various rewards in terms of extra paid days off over the Christmas/New Years holiday period. A key one of these is a Salvation Army Toy Drive, and if someone donates a new toy costing $50 or more to the drive, you get an extra paid vacation day during the Dec 21-Jan 1 period. (There are four company holidays during the four week stretch, so there are up to six other days which you might want to take off without using a vacation day.)
I'd contributed to this toy drive over the years I've been here, as to other similar ones over the years, but this year a notice went around that if we wanted to see where the toys went, there was an opportunity to sign up to help distribute the toys. I was curious, and it seemed like a nice Christmas volunteer activity, so I signed up and spent yesterday afternoon down at the state fair grounds, in a cavernous building where the Salvation Army was running it's holiday distribution center.
The idea behind this is to provide poor families with a chance to get food and gifts for the holidays. They toy section was one part of a larger process. People came in and provided their information, including the number of people and the number and ages of children. There were tables for various public and private assistance agencies, and over in that area the Salvation Army organizers were trying to make sure that people were properly signed up for health care, income assistance and food assistance as needed.
People who'd already filled out forms, and who had kids under the age of fifteen, came through into the toy area, and a dispatcher paired someone with one of the volunteers. Behind the scenes, other volunteers had already divided the toys by age and sex. So there was a long set of tables for each category: baby, toddler, boy 3-5, girl 3-5, boy 6-7, etc. These were masked off by the set of red, green and white curtains. In the area that people would walk through and "shop" with the volunteers, there was a single table for each age range on which about fifty toys were arrayed. One volunteer was behind the table as a sort of store keeper.
Once a dispatcher handed me someone's form (usually a mother or grandmother of the kids who would be getting the toys) I'd take a look to see what age and sex of children she had, and then guide her down the line. We had a nice set of canvas bags to give away to each person, and our job was to let the parent pick out one toy (no more) for each kid. In the process, we'd make conversation, help pick the gifts, and then guide them on to the next station where they'd get to pick out a Christmas food basket.
Since only fifty toys were out for any given age and sex at a time, it was always a toss up whether we'd find "just the right thing" for each kid on the list. I quickly learned that a key was to ask the mother, "What is he really into? What does he like to do?" once we reached the counter for a given age and sex. The "shop keeper" volunteer often had a couple of bigger toys behind the counter, or knew were some were back on the tables.
One mother said of her four year old daughter, "Oh, she loves anything Frozen. I've had to buy that movie three time because she keeps wearing it out."
The guy behind the counter smiled. "So she really, really likes Frozen?"
"Yeah, that's what she likes," said the mother, looking over the offerings on the table -- too many of which were, frankly, dollar store junk unlikely to make any kid's day.
"Would she like this, then?" the shop keeper asked, pulling out a big boxed pair of Anna and Elsa dolls from behind the table.
The mother's eyes lit up. "Yes, she'd love that."
As we were getting in the food line after picking out toys for who two boys, she said, "My baby asked for those two dolls for her birthday, but things were bad then and I told her maybe at Christmas. Things are still bad now, and I thought I was going to have to disappoint her again."
Any time a big Lego set or radio control car was put out, it was taken up immediately. There weren't enough toys this fancy to give everyone, so it was simply a matter of chance: did it happen to be put out on the table when a parent came along, or did they face an assortment of small toys, basic board games, and dollar store items.
The rewards are work had steered us all into donating more expensive single toys anyway, but having seen how this particular toy drive worked, the thing I resolved was that in any situation like this I'd always make sure to donate more expensive single items rather than a number of cheaper ones. It was depressing to watch a mom choosing between a couple generic Barbies, some Uno decks, a dollar store jump rope, and a domino set. These were all things she could have picked up herself a discount store for less than five dollars. With luck, she might have been able to pick up the sort of present that normally would have been out of reach. But instead, due to chance, she only got to pick out a cheap extra.
A few things served to remind one of the class and culture gap which mostly existed here. On the Girls 10-12 table there was a complete boxed set of the Harry Potter series, all shiny and shrink wrapped. It was a nice set, which I knew would sell for over $70 even on sale, and I thought of the amount of time out older girls had spent reading Harry Potter. I wanted to imagine some kid escaping a crammed apartment and a run down school to imagine walking the stone floors of Hogwarts. Every time I walked people over to that table, I'd ask, "Does your daughter like to read?" Some liked sports. Some liked "girly things" (makeup kits, jewelry). Some liked art supplies. Some were described as only liking their cell phones. After a while I started pitching the Harry Potter set to parents of 10-12 boys who were visiting the next table over as well. No takers. After three hours it was still sitting there.
There were moments of commonality as well, however. Kids provided the most basic thing in common. Everyone (well, nearly everyone -- the exceptions were really depressing) is excited to talk about and praise their kids. And since we have kids in most age ranges, I could make conversation about kids with ease.
I asked one worried woman about her Christmas plans, and she talked about going to see her mother who was going through cancer treatments. The kids couldn't go see their grandmother because her immunities were so low during treatment that she wasn't supposed to see children. Even all these years later I remember lots of cancer treatment stories from when my dad was in treatment. We talked and commiserated all the way up to the food line and a bit past. Finally I had to head back over to the toy area.
"Hang in there," I said. "I hope things go well with your mom. And Merry Christmas."
She took my hand for a moment. "Thanks. It was good to talk to you. Merry Christmas to you."
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