As they picked out their newest toys, local children’s faces were lit up with smiles Saturday at the Edward Dufresne Community Center as St. Charles Parish held its annual holiday Toy and Gift Fund giveaway.
Event organizers were determined to put on this year’s event and ensure COVID-19 would not rob families of some much needed Christmas-fueled joy. The structure was different, the day was longer and there were a few less bells and whistles, but in the end the most important goal was achieved: hundreds of children assured they would not go without a Christmas gift.
The Toy and Gift Fund was founded in the 1980s as a means to ensure as many children as possible can enjoy receiving gifts at Christmas time, particularly when for many families, purchasing gifts may not be realistic because of financial constraints. A major toy drive is held each December for the event, and names of children whose families might be in need are provided by the St. Charles Parish school system.
“It’s a real good, nice event that the parish does every year,” said local father Davin Gilton of Luling. “Them still coming out with this, despite corona … that says a lot, right there. Words can’t describe what that means. They could have just cancelled it, not had it … bless their hearts and souls.”
This year’s giveaway was longer than usual, as some protocols were changed to mitigate risk of COVID spread. Prior to this year, the event was split up with a time block for east bank families and another for west bank ones. This year’s split was by individual schools, with children coming in every 15 minutes.
The day’s events were streamlined to limit contact – no movies or games, nor photos with Santa (though Santa was indeed present for each child to greet and wave to, and a box to leave letters for Santa was in place as well). Event sponsor Valero continued to feed families who attended the event, but via to-go plates rather than on-site. And volunteers escorting the children to pick out their toys maintained their own distancing precautions to avoid physical contact.
But each child saw their Christmas made quite a bit merrier with a gift, which is the point of the proceedings. And in 2020 in particular, that means something.
Event organizer Jeanne Arabie said the decision was made in October to go forward with the event, and then it had to be revisited once Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards rolled the state back into an amended Phase II COVID-19 protocol. Arabie credited St. Charles Parish President Matt Jewell for ultimately making the call to go forward with it.
“I asked him about (cancelling) once we got into the Phase II situation, and we went back and forth. He said, ‘You know, Jeanne, these kids probably need it this year more than ever. I don’t want to cancel, let’s go forward with precautions,’” Arabie said.
More than 1,200 children were invited to the event this year, and 650 were served at the event. And the looks on their faces, many times, said it all.
“They’re so excited,” Arabie said. “Once they get their toy, they’re ready to go play with it right then and there. Just seeing their faces makes this event what it is. It’s a wonderful cause.”
RSVP volunteers were on hand as well, as is tradition. Arabie said she told volunteers she understood if they preferred to sit out the event for precautionary reasons.
“I told them it would be fine, we’d have it covered. But they said, ‘oh no, we’ve got our masks, we’ve got our gloves,’” Arabie said. “They really wanted to be a part of it.”
Arabie said the toy drive went off a bit differently than usual – “with everything going on, you had less clubs who were having meetings, so they called their members to ask for drop offs” – and United Way again provided a grant enabling organizers to go out and shop for gifts.
As is the case each year, the event was not open to the public and children were chosen to participate based on consultation with the St. Charles Parish school system, which provides names of children from infants to 12 years old whose families might be in need.