Families began to line up outside the doors at about 11 Monday night, waiting in the cold for the doors to open the next morning at 9, where they could be ushered in from the cold to do their holiday “shopping” for their kids.
This was not Black Friday and these weren’t the doors to the mall. Families were lined up and huddled in anticipation outside of People’s Place Food Pantry and Thrift Store on St. James Street in Kingston.
The usual interior of People’s Place was transformed into a holiday North Pole-esque Santa’s workshop by early Tuesday morning. It was wall to wall with people donning holiday sweaters, holiday hats and holiday leggings, shopping through aisles of brand-new toys, games, crafts and bikes for People’s Place’s annual Project Santa and Bag Holiday Hunger programs.
The shop was broken down into five age-divided stations for the programs’ “shoppers,” who were escorted individually by a volunteer People’s Place elf to help them select one item per child from each, explained People’s Place president, Tim Hurley. Station One was crafts, games and puzzles, such as Clue, Scrabble, checkers, friendship bracelet kits and such. The second station was the “big prize” toy, doll or car (this reporter was eyeballing the Easy Bake Oven with Girl Scout cookies) or, said Hurley, parents could choose a new bike out of the 200 new donated bicycles lined up on St. James Street. The most popular toys chosen were Star Wars-related, noted Hurley.
The third station was a “warming” station, offering warm clothes, jackets and coats, gloves, scarves, etc. The fourth station was filled with books donated from several book drives. Station Five was stocking stuffers. The final stop was a bag of food from the Bag Holiday Hunger program. “We did Bag Holiday Hunger last year during the break between Christmas and New Year’s, but we found that people had difficulty getting here to pick up their food,” explained People’s Place Executive Director Christine Hein. “So having it when parents were already here picking up for the toy program has worked out great for everyone. We were able to serve so many more families that way.”
Bag Holiday Hunger is designed to feed kids for the winter break with simple meals and snacks, such as sliced cheese, peanut butter, oatmeal, breakfast bars, bread, hot dogs and more. Registrants were given the option to sign up for the food when they were registering for the toy program.
The only requirement was proof that each registered child lives in Ulster County. This year the program had 1,705 children pre-registered with several hundred more kids getting signed up toward the end, amounting to over 2,000 Ulster youth opening up gifts for the holidays — well exceeding last year’s total of 1,500. People’s Place distributed packages for kids in the Ellenville and Highland school districts this week as well. Many of the families who registered were already registered with People’s Place for their food pantry services; others came in through agency referrals, such as social services. Leftover toys for infants to 14-year-olds will be on the shelves for walk-ins from Wednesday through Friday.
It takes a village, for real
Ulster County Sheriff’s Deputy Deborah Prusack handed out 75 helmets — to toddlers to teens — for parents who rolled off with bicycles for the kids. Kingston High School cheerleaders and football players helped set up, and workers from United Health Care also chipped in on the workload of sorting, assembling, distributing, cleaning and all the rest. Over 100 volunteers in total were required to distribute over 9,000 toys.
Top gifts moving off the shelves? “Pogo sticks, bicycles, scooters and mini-sewing machines,” cited People’s Place Deputy Director, Heidi Hill-Haddard. Gifts were largely sourced from large-scale drives — such as those held this season by Swim King, Radio Kingston (WKNY) and Bloomington Fire Company — as well as drives and donations from community organizations, local businesses, individuals and even People’s Place’s own volunteers. Both Hill-Haddard and Hein credited the large corps of volunteers for making the entire thing possible.
“Jennifer,” who asked that her real name be withheld, said she has periodically relies on toy programs to help her with gifts for her 6-year-old son around the holidays. “I work in restaurants but I lose work to people willing to do my job for less money,” she said. “I have a job, but it is not enough to pay my rent, which is $1,300 month, and take care of everything else.”
Following up on a story published a few weeks ago about Christmas Wishes Ulster County, which has also begun collecting donations and distributing them locally as a simple pay-it-forward measure, founder and Executive Director Melissa Banks said her organization distributed over 3,000 toys to families all throughout Ulster County on Saturday at TechCity in Lake Katrine. “They came to us through Family of Woodstock, Astor, DSS and Mental Health Association,” she said. “[Many of the recipients] were in shelters in hotels.”