Written by Mary McCusker
“This is exactly what she wanted,” Kelly Guerrirero said, closing her eyes and clutching the gift to her chest.
Clasped in her hands was a popular toy, “Watchimals” — a toy watch in the shape of a furry animal. “My daughter has been talking about it nonstop, but I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to afford it.” Pausing, she said, “I’m so happy I could cry.”
Guerrirero was one of dozens of parents who attended Catholic Charities’ Christmas toy drive on Dec. 18, where they were able to choose toys for their children. The gifts were donated by members of Saint Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Collingswood.
These parents had all evacuated from their homes in Puerto Rico which were destroyed by Hurricane Maria in September. During this difficult time of transition for these families, Catholic Charities has been helping them with housing, employment, food, clothes and utilities. The parents are working hard to make ends meet as they begin a new life after leaving everything behind. And this Christmas, they faced a new challenge: providing toys to their children for Christmas.
There was no frenzied mob typical of a “Black Friday” mall scene. But there were plenty of smiles, hugs and a few sudden tears as mothers and fathers were greeted by Catholic Charities staff, Christmas carols and cake, and the sight of a room full of brand new toys that they would be able to give their children. It was hard to imagine who would be more excited on Christmas Day — the giver or the recipients.
“You have no idea how much of a difference this will make for the kids this year,” said a smiling mother who just arrived from Puerto Rico last month, as Catholic Charities staff helped her fit two toys into a gift bags. “[My children] have been through so much. But having a normal Christmas … this will mean so much to them.”
Many came to the United States with no more than one suitcase. Luz Polo arrived to New Jersey with her children and grandchildren. “Our homes were destroyed. The roads were destroyed. We were completely stuck, and my grandkids couldn’t go to school because their schools were destroyed, too. Luckily we have family in New Jersey, so we came here with only 50 pounds of whatever we could fit in our bags,” she explained.
Polo was one of the many evacuees who also attended a winter coat drive at Catholic Charities which was held a week prior to the toy giveaway. Coat and clothing donations poured in from parishes across the Diocese of Camden, which were then sorted and organized and distributed to families. Pointing to her new winter coat and smiling, she said, “We never owned winter coats before. We never needed them in Puerto Rico!”
Lynsey Reyes, Catholic Charities coordinator for the Hurricane Maria Relief effort, has been leading and coordinating the assistance efforts for Puerto Rican evacuees across the diocese, including the coat drive and toy giveaway.
Said Reyes, “Providing immediate services and meeting their immediate needs like housing, employment, food, and clothing are most important. Many are still facing the emotional trauma of losing their entire life that they built back home,” she said. “But despite all they’ve been through these past few months, it’s great to know that they’ll still be able to feel the joys of Christmas and the warmth of the holiday season.”