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Way Finders’ 2023 Toy Drive: One pop-up toy shop, 500+ smiles

December 22, 2023

For two days in December, a conference room at Way Finders’ Springfield Housing Center transformed into a festive pop-up toy shop—well stocked with items for children ages infant through 13. As holiday music played, staff “elves” from Housing Support Services began to arrive with lists in hand. They were there to shop for the nearly 300 families they support, including 500 children, who are living in Way Finders’ Emergency Shelter Programs and other properties across western Massachusetts. 

Spotted: A bevy of kits (jewelry, learn to knit, balloon animals). Lots of cars, dinosaurs, soccer balls, and slime. A set of “DIY maracas,” arranged like eggs in a carton and ready to decorate? Yep. Overheard: “There is so much good stuff! Look at all the gifts, I love it! Oh, Black Barbie! No grabbing from my box!”

“We set it all up this morning,” said Director of Marketing and Communications Mark Lattanzi as he restocked tables and handed out gift cards for youth ages 14 to 18. “And now we’re watching it all go.”

One of the first to make the rounds and fill his boxes, which were then loaded onto a large dolly, was Compliance Manager Kenny Castro of Housing Support Services. 

“This is fun, this is my favorite time of the year,” said Castro. “This is an opportunity to make a family’s holiday season just a bit less stressful. Families are already living a very uncertain life right now within our programs. We do our best to make sure that they’re well taken care of and we’re meeting their needs. But during the holiday season, families can really feel somewhat down when they’re not able to provide for their kids when it’s all around you. So being able to alleviate that for them, even with just one extra gift, it’s amazing.”

Among the piles of toys, Castro was especially glad to see a big offering of games—Clue, chess, backgammon, Chinese checkers. “I’m a big board game person, they’re a way to have fun and provide some critical thinking and some competition between parents and siblings of all ages.” 

The Way Finders’ Toy Drive is made possible by a host of supporters, including staff, community members, and corporate partners. 

“It means the world to families, every single one of them,” said Castro, who also makes sure families receive wrapping paper. “I have been with Way Finders almost a decade, working with families day in, day out. I would love to speak for the families and say that they appreciate this, they thank us, and their kids get to be happy on Christmas day thanks to these gifts.”

As he readied to leave, Castro shared a bit of insight from his work of late. 

“I’m just seeing a lot more families, who’ve struggled to find a permanent living situation, actually moving out of our programs and into their own homes because of the extra vouchers that are coming out to help assist families. These vouchers are extremely helpful because for some families, their incomes just aren’t enough for what the living situation is now out there, rent wise.” 

Some of the fastest shoppers included Elaine Bell and Rebecca Torres, program specialists with Way Finders’ supportive housing program for young parents (Turning Point) and survivors of domestic violence (Safe Step). The theme of their week—“Chaotic!”—called for them to maximize their time. 

“We’ll hand deliver the gifts, yes, we’re like Santa Claus!” said Bell. “We’ll just pre-pack everything, make little gift baskets, and then we drop everything off, have a little conversation with them and keep it moving.”

“Some of our families don’t have transportation, so we just make it easier for them,” said Torres. “The Toy Drive means a lot, one of our families has no income, so to them, it’s everything. We have some moms that are in school. The dynamic is different for each family but we are able to help them all out.” 

“Because how much money do you really have to splurge on your kids for Christmas if you’re limited income?” asked Bell. “The additional gifts from the Toy Drive helps make Christmas a little bit better for them.”

While not the fastest shopper, Housing Case Manager Princess Gomez, who oversees 15 families living in shelter, may have been the most thoughtful. Yes, she confirmed, she selected each item with a specific child in mind. 

“I look forward to this, it’s rewarding and also joyful, because some of my families don’t have money, so for them to get something to give to their kids to make them happy, that’s a blessing,” said Gomez. “The kids are happy and the parents are, too. It’s something off their shoulders. Especially for parents who don’t have the support of family. Our gifts, it’s something that can make a frown go into a smile.”

Gomez likes to raise the surprise factor, too. “Usually for me, I kind of do a little extra, I’ll get bags or wrap all the gifts personally and tag them, so that the parents don’t have to. That way, it’s kind of a surprise to them, too. We’re Santa for the most part!”

Thank you, from all of us at Way Finders, to those who supported our Toy Drive!