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LI toy drives scramble to meet many needs amid coronavirus pandemic

John Theissen explains the organizing process at the

John Theissen explains the organizing process at the John Theissen Children's Foundation's Wantagh hub on Wednesday. Credit: Johnny Milano

The holiday season is in full swing and — COVID-19 still dauntingly in the air — organizers of local toy drives are scrambling to find ways to keep the pandemic from becoming both the figurative and literal Grinch of 2020.

Especially since, local organizers said, toy donations are down, in some cases dramatically, compared to Christmas and holiday seasons past — while the need seems greater than ever.

"You don't know who's been affected by COVID, how many people are out of work, in need," St. James Fire District Commissioner Vice Chairman Thomas Donohue said this week. "I've got two boys . . . and I couldn't imagine as a parent having to decide whether I should pay my phone bill or put a gift under the tree. You're seeing some of these young kids asking for clothes. I can't imagine being a kid and asking for clothes for Christmas."

In years past, Donohue said, the St. James Fire Department would run its annual pancake breakfast, would solicit toy donations at the event, and would donate those toys to Islandwide charities like the U.S. Marines Toys for Tots program or the John Theissen Children's Foundation.

This year? With Long Island families hit so hard the fire department is teaming with Celebrate St. James and other groups, including Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, high school leadership programs, the Smithtown Youth Bureau and even homeless veterans to gather not only toy donations, but also cash, gift cards and food pantry items to help specific families in need.

And they're not alone.

A spokeswoman for Long Island Head Start-Suffolk County in Patchogue said the organization normally asked for new unwrapped toys and things like books for the infants, toddlers and preschoolers it helps. This holiday season, they've added essentials — like diapers, formula and clothing — to the list.

"We want to give toys," spokeswoman Ana Figueroa said, "but this year we're definitely seeing need. Families that are out of work, where food is one of the main requests. We want to make children happy. But, it's real life."

"COVID has really affected everything," Dhamary Davidson, a spokeswoman for the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in Westbury, said. "It's a huge struggle. Physically, psychologically, emotionally. The socialization is not there . . . All we can do is just try to make something better."

Especially pressing for the council, Davidson said, is that its Buddy Mentor program works with children in families where at least one parent is incarcerated, which makes the financial burdens and the isolation even more difficult with pandemic protocols in place. Not only are donations down due to access and staffing issues, but how holiday gifts are distributed will change this season. Instead of the organization holding its annual event at Kellenberg Memorial High School, this year staff and volunteers will decorate their personal vehicles — and distribute items door-to-door.

Another longtime charity organizer, John Theissen, called 2020 "brutal" both personally — and for charitable donations.

Theissen began the John Theissen Children's Foundation on his parents' front lawn four years after being diagnosed with brain cancer at age 17.

Three decades and 17 operations later this year marks the 29th annual foundation toy drive for Theissen, 49.

Not only have COVID-19 protocols forced the cancellation of most foundation fundraising events in 2020, Theissen said, on top of it he lost his mom, Roberta, to cancer in September. Then he lost his best friend and big donation-raiser Anthony Mariano, 44, of Kings Park, on Nov. 20 — when Mariano was killed by a wrong-way driver who this week was charged with drunken driving.

"It's been one thing after another," Theissen said.

In fact, he said if not for a small business loan made available due to COVID, he would've been unable to run his nonprofit this holiday season.

Last year, the foundation collected and distributed more than 100,000 holiday gifts, Theissen said.

This year? With businesses closed across Long Island, with people out of work, donations are down to about 30 % of pre-pandemic levels.

Last week he said the foundation collected about 80 bags of toys. In previous years they would have expected about 250 bags at the same time, he said. Still, all these charities press on, hoping against hope.

"A lot of donors come in with a gift and say 'I didn't even realize you were doing this this year,' " Theissen said. "But we are . . . I wake up every morning and I'm grateful I'm able to do what I'm able to do. To be able to give a gift and bring a smile? Sometimes, a smile is the best medicine."

LI toy collectors

Toys for Tots. The program, run nationally by the U.S. Marine Corps for 73 years, will hold its 10th annual Long Island drive-thru donation event, 9 a.m. to noon, Sunday at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale. Social distancing and pandemic mask protocols will be in effect. For more information visit garden-cit-ny.toysfortots.org.

Celebrate St. James / St. James Fire Department. Will host a donation drive collection event, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday at the Gyrodyne site off Route 25A in Flower Field. This year they're seeking not only toys, but gift cards, clothing and even diapers in order to match gifts to age-specific requests for kids. Donations can also be dropped off from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at TD Bank, located at 621 Lake Ave. in St. James. For more information contact engine1toydrive@gmail.com.

29th Annual John Theissen Children's Foundation Long Island Toy Drive. For information on how to donate gifts, gift cards or cash, call 516-679-TOYS (8697) or visit http://jtcf.org/.

Long Island Head Start-Suffolk County. For more information on how to make holiday donations, call 631-758-5200, ext. 0129 or ext. 0122.

Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. For more information on how to donate, visit www.licadd.org and see "make a donation."

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