Hudson Valley charities work to bring holiday cheer after Sandy

Yoselin Garcia, 13, of Spring Valley, shares a thank you note she wrote to People to People in Pearl River. The organization helps the neediest families in the region by donating toys and clothes for Christmas. (Dec. 11, 2012)

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For many, the holiday season is a time of reflection, to appreciate what you have and give back to those less fortunate. Just a month after superstorm Sandy ripped through our region, that sense of service has even greater meaning for some.

"When a family is struggling and can't even afford to put food on the table, they are very hard-pressed to buy holiday gifts," said Diane Serratore, executive director of People to People, Rockland County's largest food pantry. "There are a lot of people who believe in Santa, and we want to be able to put a smile on a child's face during the holidays."

The nonprofit has been working with donors for nearly 20 years to do just that through its Project Joy program. Some 700 families -- 200 more than last year -- who rely on the pantry have written letters with their gift wishes this year, Serratore said, and donors can adopt those families and make their wishes come true.

Nick Sanderson, 66, of Pomona, his wife Leslie and their college-age daughter Lindsay have each adopted a family, as they do every year. Sanderson has finished his shopping, buying a bike and helmet for a 9-year-old boy, soccer cleats, a soccer ball and shin guards for his 17-year-old brother, and clothes for both.

Donations are being distributed to families this week.

"It brings tears to your eyes," said Sanderson, a former mayor of Pomona and president and CEO of the Flaregas engineering and design firm in Nanuet. "It's quite extraordinary, the generosity of people in this county."

Sandy disrupted the area's charities and some of the people who usually give are now at the receiving end, officials said.

MANY GIVERS NOW THE ONES IN NEED

"This is the time of year when people remember to give to those in need," said Misti Dragano, a representative for the Marines Toy for Tots Foundation. "When a tragedy like Hurricane Sandy strikes, many of the givers aren't about to give back because they are the ones now in need. Now, more than ever, we need to step up, dig a little deeper and give a little more."

And Toys for Tots is doing just that. In addition to the toy drives it organizes, the foundation has partnered with the Blue Angels, an elite fighting group with the U.S. Navy, to provide toys to those in metropolitan New York who have been affected by the storm.

Last week, Blue Angels' C-130 aircraft, nicknamed Fat Albert, landed at the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey carrying toys donated from Atlanta and Washington to distribute to areas hit hard by the storm, including the Hudson Valley.

"As a father, I can't imagine facing Christmas morning without something for my children," said Lt. General Pete Osmond, president and CEO of Marines Toys for Tots Foundation. "I just can't imagine how difficult that could be for a parent. It just gives me a really good feeling about this country and the way we so generously rally around those in need."

Municipalities across the region are also lending a helping hand this holiday season, with the towns of Clarkstown and Orangetown hosting Toys for Tots donation boxes in their town halls. Employees of the City of Yonkers will participate in a toy drive, working with the Yonkers Community Action Program, the city's anti-poverty program, to buy gifts off wish lists written by the children they serve.

Various agencies within the Town of Greenburgh will be collecting toys and food, including the various fire departments, the police department and the Theodore D. Young Community Center. In the Village of Briarcliff Manor, the police department will collect toys while the fire department and residents are collecting new clothes and buying gift cards to send to residents of Breezy Point, Queens.

Dovetailing the efforts to help those affected by superstorm Sandy is the generosity many local charities have come to expect from local families, friends and neighbors.

The Salvation Army's Peekskill Corps is a third of the way to its Dec. 24 fundraising goal of $94,000 for this year's Red Kettle Campaign, said envoy Chaka Watch, director of the local corps.

The Westchester division of UJA-Federation of New York, an umbrella organization providing support to nearly 100 community, education, community service, health and human agencies across the county, hosts annual Gift Chanukah events. The group supports two pediatric residential treatment centers, a rehabilitation center and senior living community in the Bronx and Westchester. Volunteers celebrate with residents through crafts, music and snacks.

Longtime UJA-Federation volunteer Allison Friedland, 38, of Scarsdale, brought her children to a recent celebration at the Henry Ittleson Center in Riverdale. .

"For my children, just being able to experience philanthropy hands-on and work with children less fortunate than they are, I think, is very important," she said. "To see it up close and personal really touches a cord."

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