For the second year in a row, two old Christmas toy giveaways for kids in Jacksonville will help Santa in a variety of sizes due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Jacksonville’s 23rd Annual Children’s Christmas Party will not take place in person at the quintessential Prime Osborn Convention Center home, but will be handing out toys to needy families through two nonprofit organizations that serve children. And the 40th annual JP Hall Jr. Children’s Charities Christmas Party in Green Cove Springs will return to the Clay County Fairgrounds on December 18, but as a drive-thru toy distribution.
The decision to forgo the in-person event for the second year in a row was painful but necessary, said Diane Halverson, executive director of the Jacksonville event.
“Last year we were disappointed when we had to change… from having our big annual party to distributing toys through other organizations,” she said. “During the second year of the pandemic, we kept a close eye on the virus and knew the threat was still there, especially with the delta variant last fall. With 12,000 people under the roof of the convention center, including 5,000 young children who are not having enough time to get fully vaccinated, it just wasn’t a good idea.”
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The toy distribution plan for 2020, in partnership with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Northeast Florida and Communities in Schools after-school programs, “has been successful and we were fortunate to be able to use this method again this year,” Halverson said.
At the last in-person event in 2019, approximately 4,000 Jacksonville children received approximately 50,000 toys. Last year, the nonprofits provided about 15,000 toys for about 5,100 children in their after-school programs. This year, 5,700 children aged 5 to 17 will receive 27,000 toys in the week of December 13.
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“They’ll be holding Christmas parties and handing out our bags of toys. Each bag has a few toys and a pencil that says ‘Stay smart. Stay in school,'” Halverson said.
About 15,000 of the toys were purchased through Group Sales, a wholesale toy company in Cincinnati, and 12,000 were donated by two local toy companies, JA-RU and National Life, among other sources, she said.
Despite the pandemic and its associated economic impact, the community has continued to support the party.
“The sufficient funds we have been able to raise during both pandemic years are a great testament to our generous community and their trust in us to fulfill our mission,” Halverson said. “We are fortunate to be able to reach so many children… who may not have received gifts during this difficult Christmas time in the lives of so many families.”
Halverson and the party’s board of directors hope to return to the Prime Osborn in 2022.
“We want to get back to the big party,” she said. “The best part is Santa and Mrs Claus and the 800 other volunteers there to greet the children with a welcome smile and toys in hand. We can’t wait.”
The Jacksonville event was founded in 1999 by local philanthropists Travis and Margaret Storey. They wanted to close a gap between the increasing number of needy families and the Dorcas Drake Christmas Party, a holiday institution since the 1950s that struggled after the founder’s death.
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Count on a good cause and pass it on
In Clay County, the JP Hall Christmas Party typically serves about 1,500 to 1,800 children, newborns up to age 14.
Longtime organizer Virginia Hall said the drive-thru method the event used last year worked well. Children and families waited in line in their vehicles to receive bags of toys through the windows, as Santa waved at them from a parked fire truck.
She said her phone has been “ringing off the hook” for weeks with callers looking for information about the party. The calls started earlier than usual this year, she said, prompting her to wonder if more families are economically stressed.
“It’s so hard to say,” Hall said.
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But it’s clear that many parents are counting on the party to give their kids a Christmas they couldn’t otherwise afford, she said.
No one is allowed to get out of the car and children have to sit in the car to receive gifts. Spending the night in the parking lot of the fairgrounds is prohibited. Proof of Clay County residency is required.
The event was hosted by Hall’s father, businessman JP Hall Jr., as part of the nonprofit Children’s Charities that he founded in honor of his father, who was a Clay sheriff for 36 years. The charity also has a scholarship program.
Virginia Hall started volunteering at the event as a child and now cares for her two sons, aged 29 and 28, to take over soon.
“It’s time to pass it on to my kids,” she said.
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JACKSONVILLE . CHRISTMAS PARTY
Toy donations are no longer accepted for this year’s giveaway. Cash donations are always welcome, but are best made before the end of the year. Visit ccpoj.org to donate via Paypal or get more information.
JP HAL JR. CHILDREN CHARITY CHRISTMAS
The event will take place on December 18 from 9 a.m. to noon at the Clay County Fairgrounds, 2497 Florida 16, Green Cove Springs. Unwrapped new toys can be donated at any fire station in Clay County. Volunteers are needed to help prepare the site by 9am on December 17th. To donate or get more information, visit jphallcharities.com.