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December 21, 2021

It may seem counterintuitive, but for some kids, the thought of returning to school after the new year can be stressful. There are inevitably animated conversations swirling around (“What did you get? Guess what I got!”) that can stir up lots of feelings—everything from sadness to anxiety. This is especially true for the many children of parents who are struggling to afford daily necessities—rent, food, utilities. For whom holiday spending may simply be out of reach.  

In planning its annual holiday Toy Drive, Way Finders’ motivations were straightforward: Brighten a family’s day! Help families feel seen and embraced. Spread joy to the more than 600 children (ages infants to 17) who live at our Emergency Shelter Programs and other properties. And help alleviate stress for both children and the adults who love and care for them—but whose resources for gift giving may be limited.  

The Toy Drive is a team effort, made possible by the generosity of Way Finders’ staff members, volunteers, and local community partners. Once again, Way Finders has been selected as a recipient of the Marines Toys for Tots, a national nonprofit that operates nearly 800 campaigns across the country. The key word here being campaign: the Marines Toys for Tots’ approach to the collection and distribution of toys is a large-scale exercise in strategy and efficiency.  

The Western Mass Toys For Tots campaign—which covers Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties—coordinates many local collection points for toys, including at MGM Springfield. They then arrange for organizations to pick up an allotment, for direct dispersal to the families within their specific networks. This year, Way Finders is among the 100+ selected organizations selected by the local campaign which, in 2020, distributed nearly 80,000 toys.  

On December 21, Way Finders picked up several truckloads of items—new, unwrapped toys, grouped by various ages. The donations help bolster those already dropped off and delivered by staff and friends (thank you Armoury Quadrangle Civic AssociationMt. Zion Baptist Church, and St. Mark Armenian Church!), including gift cards and 50 stuffed monkeys from Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers. The week before Christmas, a cohort of “pick-up and sorting elves”—Way Finders volunteers—prepped the donations ahead of their being picked up by Way Finders’ emergency and supportive housing programs. 

Sarah Cloutier, Director of Supportive Services, was amazed by this year’s Toy Drive. “Since I’ve been at Way Finders, this has been one of the biggest donation years. I walked into the sorting room at the main office and was like, ‘This is pretty great!’ We got some good gifts—scooters, journals, health and beauty stuff, Legos, STEM toys. Oh, and we got a huge donation of rip sticks, which are like two skateboards connected in the middle.” 

And, thanks to a generous donation, every mom in Sarah’s two programs—Safe Step, which provides supportive housing for survivors of domestic violence, and Turning Point, which supports young parents—received shower gel and body lotion. “Which is awesome, because moms usually don’t get anything.” 

The best part of the Toy Drive for Sarah, beyond seeing the generosity of the community, is seeing the smiles of families who feel recognized. “Families don’t expect it, so when they receive their bag of items, it’s like, ‘Wow, you guys thought of us! That doesn’t happen often. That’s so nice.’ Just to put a little smile on someone’s face, it’s all worth it.” 

For some families, the Toy Drive gifts are a little bit of extra. For others, they are the only gifts a family will open on Christmas morning. 

“We forget that gifts and toys are not on a survivor’s mind. They are not the first thing someone’s grabbing when they need to leave a situation,” says Sarah of Safe Step. “We have a family in a hotel right now, unfortunately, because there wasn’t space elsewhere. She kept saying, ‘As long as we’re safe, and have somewhere to sleep, we’re OK.’ They have no Christmas tree. She was so appreciative. Even of something small, even a book. She was so thankful.”  

Thank you to all who supported the Way Finders’ Toy Drive.