When Dahiana Rosario walked into Merrimack College’s Hands to Help office in Lawrence and saw the bags of toys donated for her four sons, she was taken aback.
“Are all of these for us?,” she asked with disbelief in her eyes.
Rosario and her family are among 56 families who received toys and gifts this Christmas through Merrimack’s annual Holiday Toy Drive. In total, more than 320 toys were donated by the Merrimack community.
“I am very grateful,” Rosario said. “It helps a lot because we are experiencing financially hard times right now. Everything is very expensive. We are going to enjoy these gifts a lot.”
The drive is run by Hands to Help, Merrimack’s neighborhood resource center that provides various programs, from tutoring services to back-to-school supplies, to 125 children in the Greater Lawrence area. Rosario explained she first heard about Hands to Help from a friend, and signed her eldest son up for tutoring in reading and math.
“The way Dahiana lit up when she came in, that is why we do this,” said Rosana Urbaez, the director of Hands to Help. “This time of year is really hard. Yes, Christmas is a joyous occasion but it is also financially taxing on families, especially for single parents taking care of multiple children.”
Like so many organizations, due to the pandemic Hands to Help was forced to pivot the way it operated the toy drive. Previously, Merrimack employees brought an unwrapped toy to the annual alumni Christmas party. But when the party was canceled due to pandemic restrictions, Urbaez and her team opted to use an Amazon wishlist, where people could select specific toys to donate.
“Bringing toys to the party was also hard because folks weren’t really sure what to get,” Urbaez said. “The Hands to Help staff and fellows are constantly immersed in the lives of these kids so we know what they want. We just add it to the wishlist and that makes the gifts more personalized.”
Among the most popular toys requested this year were sports equipment, games such as Jenga and sensory gifts. The toys were distributed to families on Friday, Dec. 16.
“Many of our families are on assistance but that only goes so far,” Urbaez said. “It is important that we can relieve even a little stress so parents don’t have to worry about choosing between paying bills or getting Christmas toys for their children.”