Annual toy giveaway in Alexandria adjusts for pandemic

The pandemic has changed so many annual traditions this year, but it didn’t stop one organization in Alexandria, Virginia, from having its Winter Wonderland event.

Gaynelle Diaz, the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s director of resident and community services, is grateful the organization was still able to give children a little bit of joy this weekend.

It sent out information inviting all of the families who receive housing assistance to pre-register, then was able to set appointment times throughout the weekend, so families wouldn’t have to stand in line. Volunteers then handed gifts to families as they arrived in their cars.

Diaz said the pandemic had caused the organization to modify its plans, but it still found a way for kids to see Santa.

“We had Santa here everyday and Ms. Claus was here as well,” she said. “So they hang out under the tent and wave. And that’s been really exciting, because even if the kids are in the car when they drive up, the kids started waving and jumping up with joy.”

Diaz has been involved with the Winter Wonderland event for 10 of the last 11 years, and she said parents were grateful the event was still able to take place.

“People are just really happy that we were able to do anything,” she said, because many parents “desperately wanted to get something and they couldn’t afford it, so this was a nice way to get something for their kids.”

The organizer said other organizations kept calling her to see if they were still going to hold the toy giveaway.

“We have a lot of partnerships and people that support us in different ventures throughout the year,” Diaz said. “A lot of them came forward and said: ‘Hey, are you still going to do it? What can we do to help?'”

She worked with many organizations — including Toys for Tots and Hearts of Empowerment, who provided toys and donations to help the group buy gifts. In addition, Inspire Lit gave the organization age- and culturally-appropriate books to give the kids, she said.

The City of Alexandria and the Charles Houston Recreation Center also made sure the space was big enough and safe — not only for the families but also the volunteers.

“It’s been a blessing to serve, even in this time of COVID,” Diaz said.

Five hundred families registered and 1,000 kids were served, said Diaz, who hopes next year will be even better.

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