Amid the coronavirus pandemic, kids across the country will be in need of holiday cheer now more than ever. Over this holiday season, TODAY will be spreading some joy with the help of Toys for Tots as part of the Season of Giving series.
How to help
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The program, which has donated 584 million toys since its founding in 1947, is working to donate millions of toys, books and gifts in 2020.
Virtual Toy Box
In a year unlike any other, the Toys for Tots classic donation toy box has gone digital. Through the Toys for Tots Virtual Toy Box, people can select a toy they'd like to donate and it will be distributed to a child in need.
"An operation of love"
This time of year is "crunch time" for Toys for Tots, according to TODAY's Jenna Bush Hager, who reported from a New York City distribution center on Wednesday morning. Just nine days out from Christmas, the U.S. Marines and other volunteers in the facility are working twelve hours a day sorting toys.
"The Marines are on active duty, which means it is literally their mission to bring love and joy to kids' faces," said Jenna. The New York Police Department also works with the organization in what Jenna called "an operation of love."
The need is bigger than ever this year: According to Jenna, a lot of toy drives have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic: In 2019, there were 100 Toys for Tots toy drives in the New York City area, but this year, there were only 12.
"(This year) is completely different. COVID has changed the way we've done all of our operations. it's been a double edged sword where many people in the community no longer have a job and the need is greater than it's ever been since I've taken part in toys for tots," said Staff Sergeant Robert Bacchus told Jenna. "Also, there are many organizations that have had to shut down because of COVID. We've seen an overall 40% reduction in toys coming in."
While the organization is facing setbacks in donations, Jenna shared exciting news with the Toys for Tots volunteers. Toy company Hasbro is donating 200,000 toys collected from around the country, in addition to one million toys that they donated earlier in the year.
"That's perfect. This is the time we need it. That's an amazing donation," said Bacchus.
Toys for Tots isn’t the only organization working to make sure kids everywhere have a happy holiday season. Savannah Guthrie introduced the TODAY audience to Lily Bonacasa, a 9-year-old girl who founded Lily’s Toy House in honor of her late father, Staff Sergeant Louis Bonacasa. Lily's Toy House collects toy donations and has raised $10,000 in the last two years to fulfill Christmas wish lists in her area.
Savannah and Lily toured FAO Schwarz, the iconic New York toy store, to pick up some gifts for preschoolers. While Lily had planned to use the funds from her nonprofit to make the purchase, she was surprised at the register: All of the toys would be donated by FAO Schwarz.
"I can already just picture right now, (recipients) just smiling and like, ‘Oh my god, I wanted this for Christmas!’ I think they’ll be really happy," Lily said.
In New Jersey, physical education teacher Jennifer Olawski has spent the past five years making sure that every student at her school receives a Christmas gift.
"When I was teaching in Patterson, New Jersey, one of the first grade students that I had came to the office, and I was like 'Hey, are you getting excited for Christmas?' And the look on her face was just — it was this blank look, and she told me that she never received a Christmas present before. And the rest of the day it just kept going through my mind, because if she's in that situation, there can be other students in that situation."
Olawski created a GoFundMe page, which raised thousands of dollars, enough to buy a gift for each of the school's 500 students. Every year, she said, students are joyful and emotional about the presents. Even after moving to a new school and adjusting to remote learning, she still plans to carry out the tradition with her new students. This year, the GoFundMe has raised over $14,000, and she wants to give gifts to all 800 students in the school.
"Most people are realizing what's important, and people want to help," Olawski said. "And that's something that is so, so beautiful. ... It's not just about the gifts. It's about the act of giving to others."
The 3rd hour of TODAY anchors had a surprise for Olawski and some of her students and faculty colleagues: Each child was given a copy of the classic story "The Night Before Christmas."
"This is going to mean a lot to the kids," Olawski said, through tears.