When single mom Lespia Niforos knew she wouldn't be able to afford Christmas gifts for her three young children in 2012, she told them that Santa Claus was sick and couldn't make it to their house.
Niforos has been out of work for more than two years, staying home and taking care of her special-needs son, 10-year-old Devon.
"With all the doctors' appointments and all the stress, I can only work a few hours a week," said Niforos, 40, of Spring Valley, who says she sometimes works as a home health aide to help pay bills.
But this Christmas, Devon, along with Niforos' other children, 8-year-old Briana and 3-year-old Ariana, will have wrapped presents underneath the tree thanks to the Rockland County Salvation Army, which conducted its annual gift drive Thursday in Spring Valley.
More than 1,500 children from 400 families received brand-new gift this year. Using money collected from the red collection bins outside shops, the Salvation Army also purchased more than $7,000 worth of 14-pound turkeys and $25 ShopRite gift cards to give to each family to prepare a holiday feast.
"I'm going to buy some rice and beans and make the turkey," Niforos said. "We're going to have a nice meal."
Starting in October, families wrote their children's wishes on an angel, which were then distributed to participating businesses and schools throughout the county who help make the wishes come true.
"They donate such wonderful gifts, and so many places support us," said Major Jodi Lloyd of the Salvation Army. "It's such a whirlwind, and it's so great to be able to give. We try to match the families with what they asked for: toys, clothing, coats, shoes."
Niforos smiled as she rifled through the black plastic bag, which was filled with a scooter, pink boots, a remote-controlled car, an American Girl book and LEGOS.
"It's going to be a great surprise for them," Niforos said. "They're going to love it."
Lloyd said superstorm Sandy, which ravaged Rockland County on Oct. 29, has had an affect on many families who have come to the center for assistance.
"It's been a tough year. Sandy threw a lot of people off," Lloyd said. "We've had a lot of families come to us for the first time this year.
"Most people work, but it's usually temporary work so they don't have a steady paycheck. That really hurts them," Lloyd added.
Volunteers acted as Santa's helpers Thursday afternoon, checking their organized list of names and handing out plastic bags filled with toys.
Flora Rosa, 37, of Spring Valley, picked up toys for two of her four children, 10-year-old Alexander and 6-year-old Yair.
"I feel so happy. Thank God," said Rosa, a housekeeper at a local hotel. "They're helping a lot of people."
Rosa now has sets of Hot Wheels, LEGOS, a red puffy coat and clothes to give to her boys.
"I just work to pay the rent and everything," Rosa said, choking back tears. "It's so hard. I have four kids and my mother lives with us, too. I had to tell my kids that I don't think Santa can get you what you want, but now they're going to be so excited. I can't wait to see their faces."
One woman, who did not want her name printed because she is a domestic violence victim, was "thankful" that she could now give a Mr. Potato Head, Play-Doh, dinosaur figures and underwear to her three young boys.
"We're alive, and that's all that matters," the woman said. "God is good. We're just very blessed that my kids are safe and they're healthy.
"The last two years have been really rough," the woman added. "I lost my grandmother last year, my mother has stage 4 ovarian cancer and my twin babies were born at 25 weeks. We've come a really long way, and I'm just glad I have something for my kids on Christmas."