The holiday spirit is contagious. Unfortunately, so is COVID-19. So at this year’s annual food and toy drive organized by local faith-based charity St. Vincent de Paul, volunteers went out of their way to make sure that the only thing they were spreading was Christmas cheer.
“This year we did have to make some major changes because of COVID,” said St. Vincent de Paul Executive Director Carolyn Palmer.
The scope of the event grew to reflect the growing need in 2020. According to Palmer, she’s receiving additional referrals for families who fell on hard times as a result of the virus.
“People have lost jobs, or they’ve never been in this situation — they don’t know how they’re going to take care of their children this Christmas, because they’ve never been here before,” Palmer said. “A lot of new families are getting entered into the program because of COVID-19 and a loss of a job, loss of income, loss of hours.”
In order to safely distribute Christmas gifts to approximately 800 local children, the organization needed enough physical space to ensure social distancing. The most noteworthy change for Saturday’s toy distribution event was the location.
Saturday’s event took place at Seton Catholic College Prep, where the gymnasium and cafeteria together could accommodate the gifts, volunteers and attendees.
Organizers staggered entrance — families registered for one half-hour time slot, with no more than 16 families allowed at once. To enter, attendees were required to fill out a health survey, check their temperature, and wear a face mask and gloves.
Once inside, they could “shop” for free at a series of tables, organized by the age of the gift recipient. Behind each table, stacked up on the bleachers, were more gifts in the same category, and if something caught their eye a volunteer would run up and grab it for them.
Shoppers also picked up present-wrapping supplies — a key piece of the puzzle, whether the gifts come from caregivers or from Santa Claus. Families with children from infants up to 18 years old could participate.
Attendees also entered into a series of raffles, to receive bicycles, a tree with all the fixings or an assortment of holiday decorations.
According to Marie Lockwood, the Seton Catholic leadership teacher and activities coordinator, the event was made possible by the approximately 130 volunteers who donated their time to ensure everyone could participate safely. About 70 percent of them were students, she estimated, who could include the gift distribution event as part of their annual community service hour tally.
From 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., volunteers worked in shifts. Some remained in the parking lot, ensuring that attendees were masked up before they left their vehicles. Others helped guide people through the hallways, ensuring they stuck to the predetermined paths designed to minimize close encounters. A handful of bilingual student volunteers helped to translate Spanish and American Sign Language, which proved valuable, Lockwood said.
“I’m always proud of our students,” Lockwood said. “To see our students and how they were…” she trailed off, choking up. “Their hearts were sincerely touched.”
Seton Catholic was identified as a potential location for the annual toy drive just three weeks ago, Principal Robert Rusk said. Organizing an event of this scope in less than a month was a whirlwind, he acknowledged, especially during all the challenges presented by a global pandemic.
It helped that school staff have experience establishing and enforcing safety protocols, he added — the school adopted a hybrid model in recent months, including some in-person instruction, and used the same precautionary measures for the gift distribution event.
“It’s great to see it all come together,” Rusk said. “I’d be honored to do it again next year.”