The smiles displayed Saturday at the Edward Dufresne Community Center could have lit the world’s largest Christmas tree.
Surrounded by toys, books and treats, the children attending the annual St. Charles Parish RSVP Toy and Gift Christmas giveaway were having a ball, and perhaps a much needed one considering what so many local families have gone through following Hurricane Ida.
And because of Ida, this year’s Toy and Gift event was rather unprecedented: for the first time ever, an invite was extended to every child in St. Charles Parish.
Historically, the event saw the St. Charles Parish school system supply a list of names of children whose families might be in need due to financial constraints, the goal to ensure as many children as possible would indeed have a merry Christmas. The reality following Hurricane Ida, however, is that families that could use an assist for the holiday season might be the rule and not the exception, with the rebuilding of countless homes in the community underway.
“This event is extra special this year because it is open to every child in St. Charles Parish,” said Parish President Matt Jewell, who added that the ability to give away gifts on such a large scale – with each child able to choose two gifts to take home – was made possible by sponsors that included Toys for Tots, Gayle Benson, United Way and Valero. “It’s what Christmas is all about, giving and giving back to the community.
“So many people have gone through so much with Hurricane Ida. To be able to help a family that may be rebuilding a home or maybe lost a home completely, and maybe doesn’t have the financial means (to buy gifts) because of so many other things they had to do, I think that’s special.”
Jewell said seeing so many young faces light up upon entering the center served as an instant reminder of why the event is so worthwhile.
“They come in and they’re overwhelmed by all the toys, by Santa, and it’s just great,” Jewell said. “There’s so much excitement in their eyes and you love to see that.”
The event saw hundreds of toys atop tables stretched across the center. Santa Claus was on hand to take photos with visitors, while children even had a chance to meet up with Batman, taking the time to spread some Christmas cheer between his crimefighting adventures. The day was split into two time windows, one for East Bank residents and one for those from the West Bank. All children aged infant to 16 were invited to attend with a parent or guardian.
During the planning stages for the event, Toys for Tots reached out to parish representatives with a strong message: it was going to double its usual donation so the giveaway could be opened to all parish children.
“Knowing the disaster we’ve been dealing with … this time, no, we want to serve every child in the parish,” said Devona L’Herisse of the nonprofit Kare for Kidz, which partners with Toys for Tots. “All of our families are rebuilding and going through this, and we should help all of them. (The parish) agreed, and here we are.”
L’Herisse lives in and is a native of St. Rose, so the cause was especially dear to her.
“That’s why I’m so passionate about this,” she said, acknowledging the trying times of late. “Up until today, you weren’t seeing any smiles. There weren’t any. But today, you see these kids coming in, walking around and saying, ‘Look what I’ve got!’ … that’s what they need to have right now, and it’s what makes me feel great.
“Seeing them makes me feel like I’m a little kid again, shopping in the store. I just like to make friends with them, just for a little short time. ‘What’s your name? How old are you?’ I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It was a struggle getting to this point for sure, but once we’re here, it’s really amazing.”