If Santa is ever in need of helpers for his workshop, Lakewood is the first place he should look.
In a little more than two and a half hours on Saturday morning, Caring For Kids founder Diane Formoso and her crew of volunteer elves packed and prepped bags of holiday gifts and warm clothes for more than 600 families in the .
It was an effort indicative of the Christmas spirit. Volunteers finished an hour early despite having more orders than last year. The organization’s annual Holiday Fair, held at , has a simple, yet meaningful purpose.
Bringing Christmas to needy kids.
“We’ve been doing this a long time,” Formoso said proudly, “and every year, it gets easier.”
Her tone turning more serious, Formoso, a former school-bus driver for CPSD, said that it has been a “very difficult year.” She receives requests for clothes, food and assistance for families who are facing homelessness every day.
“But I know that what we do here, we are giving these children something special,” she said. “We let them know that they are important to the community. These kids are lost. They have no hope.
“How can you have hope when you don’t even get three meals a day?”
It was a desire to help that brought out more than 150 volunteers from the district and the community. The group tirelessly hauled, sorted, stacked and packed for two days.
There were 50 orders for and 80 for . Another 30 for and 60 headed to Oakwood Elementary. And Formoso said she expects to receive another 500 calls for gifts before Christmas Eve.
“I do it for the kids,” said Karen Thomas, a secretary at Hudtloff. “I like how we all come together and work as a group, filling the bags, and making Christmas right for these families. In this day and time, that can be hard, but we make it fun.”
Each child received a sweatshirt or other top, socks, gloves and hat, books and a large and small gift. And the tables, stacked high with toys that Formoso purchases throughout the year, were a popular destination for those helping.
There were Barbies and “Cars 2” cars. Thomas the Train sets and life-sized baby dolls. Card games and fairy wands and Play-Doh and ballerina jewelry boxes.
There was something for everyone. Something for Christmas.
“We get to see all of the toys and pick them out for little kids,” said Cinthia Vazquez, a senior at who was there with the Lakewood Youth Council. “We get to argue about what we should choose and we get to help.”
Added her friend, fellow senior , “It’s amazing how the community comes together – we raise the money in the community, shop in the community and then give back to the community.”
After each order was complete, it was methodically labeled and taken to its designated spot. By 10 a.m., it was walking room only in most of the school’s vast hallways.
And less than an hour later, the families began lining up.
“My kids can actually have a Christmas,” said one mom, who was picking up gifts for her two children, aged six and eight. “We were looking at not having Christmas this year.”
Another woman began to cry as she described the struggle after her father-in-law, with whom her family lived, unexpectedly passed away. She and her husband are full-time students, so providing for their kids, who are two, six and eight, has become increasingly challenging.
“Everything just …” she trailed off. “This means a Christmas for them.”
Once the families departed, counselors or other staff members from every CPSD school arrived to pick up their schools’ remaining orders and deliver them this week.
“When I see the kids come back in January wearing something we gave them, or saying that they got something, it lightens everything,” said Myra Johnson, the counselor at Lakeview Hope Academy, one of the district’s most impoverished schools. “When they say they didn’t get anything, I’m crushed.
“It’s hard that I don’t know every family. But we do try to hit everyone and I truly believe we get to the highest needs.”
Their efforts were appreciated by the families, some of whom were clearly overwhelmed as they received their overflowing bags, as well as a donated ham and bag of potatoes.
“It’s a relief,” said one father he waited for gifts for his children, aged two, four and eight. “We have been really worried with all of the bills. It’s hard to pay for everything.”
His wife added that it is hard when their kids see a toy on TV or in a store and immediately say they want it for Christmas.
“I have to tell them we’ll see,” she said, her voice thick with tears. “I can’t tell them yes, or no, because that could break their hearts.”