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Pandemic Forces Organizers To Revamp Holiday Toy Drives

Marcus Cantu loads gifts onto trucks for transport as part of the Texas Department of Public Safety's Gift Drive for Children in Foster Care last week.
Marcus Cantu loads gifts onto trucks for transport as part of the Texas Department of Public Safety's Gift Drive for Children in Foster Care last week.

Groups putting together toy drives for kids this holiday season have had to navigate the economic fallout of the pandemic, as well as COVID-19 safety concerns.

The Austin LGBT Chamber of Commerce Health and Wellness Committee says it's hoping to help 200 to 300 kids with its first holiday toy drive. Committee co-chair Rich Segal said the group will be happy with whatever help it gets.

“The biggest challenge that we’re facing is how many people can actually give this year,” Segal said. “We know that people want to give. We know that some people will be able to give. We also know that there’s some people who have given in the past who may not be able to give this year.”

Laura Cox, special events coordinator at Dell Children's Medical Center, said the hospital has received fewer donations to its annual toy drive compared to this point last year. Dell hopes to provide gifts for the 150 children it estimates will be in the hospital on Dec. 21 and 22.

In previous years, volunteers arranged donated toys, slippers, pajamas and books to look like a holiday store. Families of patients strolled around the “Holiday Village,” pushing little shopping carts and picking out gifts. They sipped hot chocolate while gifts were wrapped by volunteers and the kids mingled with Santa and his superhero friends.

That's changing this year. In place of the holiday store, patients will get gifts delivered to their rooms based on wish lists. Hot drinks won’t be served, and superheroes will likely have to visit kids using the closed-circuit televisions in their rooms.

Cox said she hopes the event will continue to have a positive impact, despite the changes.

“Families tell us it does help take the stress off holiday shopping in a time when they’re already super stressed and super worried about their kiddos,” she said. “We give them this opportunity to not have to worry about that and to take one more thing off their plate.”

In years past, Austin Police Operation Blue Santa has supplied toys – and Santa himself – for the event. The organization has been providing meals and toys to low-income families during the holidays for the past 48 years. The pandemic has forced it to make big changes in a short period of time.

It normally collected thousands of toys during a parade held the weekend after Thanksgiving. Spectators along the route would place gifts on the floats for Operation Blue Santa to pass on to children in need.

But this year, the parade was canceled due to safety concerns, and organizers switched from providing meals and toys to giving out gift cards.

Board President Margarine Beaman says there's been a sharp increase in the number of families applying for assistance and, as of Friday, there was a $50,000 budget shortfall.

Although the fundraising obstacles seem “scary,” she said she's convinced Operation Blue Santa will find a way to help all the families who applied.

"I get in a panic," she said. "But when I get in a panic, I get everyone else to get in a panic with me" and things get done.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Margarine Beaman, board president of the Austin Police Operation Blue Santa, poses at the program's warehouse headquarters in South Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT
Margarine Beaman, board president of the Austin Police Operation Blue Santa, poses at the program's warehouse headquarters in South Austin.