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Unexpected gift: Allegheny toy donations up despite downturn

| Thursday, Dec. 25, 2008

The recession hit just as local counties were starting holiday gift drives traditionally held for needy children, and expectations were low.

Then the gifts started coming.

Although they haven't tallied data, organizers in at least three Western Pennsylvania counties this week reported they not only surpassed goals, but received more holiday gift donations this year than last year.

"I wasn't really sure what the kids would get and wouldn't get. It's always been a blessing, and this year people have really been stretching and giving in a lot of ways," said Cheryl Menser of Hempfield.

Her three foster children, including a girl whose father died, received games, gift cards, clothing and an Easy-Bake Oven through donations to Westmoreland County.

"It excites them because a lot of these children haven't had things. ... It really adds something, you could say a spark, a twinkle in their eyes," Menser said.

Westmoreland County was able to double and in some cases triple the number of gifts for each of the 1,000 children in its program. Allegheny County added several gift donor groups this year and received more than 20,000 gifts to help abused children, foster children and others in its system. Increased donations helped Butler County serve 400 families, 100 more than the year before.

Service workers speculate the financial crisis made people more aware of struggling families and said those people likely chose children to receive their charity.

Many companies began calling in November saying they wanted to nix their annual employee gift exchanges in favor of donating gifts to children, said Denna Hays, supervisor of the services unit at Butler County's Children and Youth Services. Some companies and churches held their own toy drives, without prompting, Hays said.

"It's very rewarding, especially for the moms who start to cry when you show up with gifts," Hays said. "For a lot of them, if they didn't have these gifts, they wouldn't have anything."

Nick Daemous, 51, of the North Side said he worked last year to help bars raise $15,000 for Allegheny County children. This year, he started his own gift drive and became a bundler for the county, leaving donor boxes in police stations.

"If you've ever had a bad Christmas or a bad Hanukkah, your heart really goes out for kids who are having a rough life and rough holiday season," he said.

The gifts that Allegheny County collects go to a distribution center at Century III Mall in West Mifflin. Case workers can choose up to four gifts for each child. Sometimes each has as many as 60 children, said Samantha Baer-McVicker, the center's coordinator.

"We haven't lost one sponsor," Baer-McVicker said. "I think people were feeling lucky that they had things. It was eye-opening this year for them to realize how many people really don't."

Additional Information:

Help wanted

Allegheny County accepts gift and cash donations for the holidays throughout the year.

The county's distribution center at Century III Mall is open all year, and workers monitor sales at the mall so they can buy at the best prices. They plan to take advantage of after-Christmas sales, said Samantha Baer-McVicker, the county's Holiday Project coordinator.

To donate, contact her by e-mail or by phone, 412-350-6790. Checks made out to 'DHS Donation Fund' with 'Holiday Project' written on the memo line can be sent to Samantha Baer-McVicker, Holiday Project Coordinator, Allegheny County Department of Human Services, One Smithfield Street, First Floor, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.

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