Shared from The Darien Times, by Mollie Hersh, Dec 16, 2022
DARIEN — Toys filled the entire room of St. Luke’s Parish’s community center Thursday morning, stacked on tables and under the central Christmas tree, ready to be distributed to more than 1,000 families in Fairfield County.
Open through Saturday, the 27th annual Person-to-Person holiday toy store returned in-person for the first time since the pandemic.
The Darien-based non-profit has been preparing for its holiday tradition since January, collecting donations to give away to families in need across Fairfield County.
The return this year was special for P2P staff and clients after two years operating with a drive-thru system, a necessary safety precaution during the pandemic.
Rather than taking home a predetermined gift card and toy like the last two years, parents could once again pick out a holiday gift for each child, along with books and a board game for the whole family.
P2P CEO Nancy Coughlin said there was a different energy coming back in person that had been missing over the past two years.
“I’m very proud of what we did, and we made it work,” Coughlin said. “But now seeing how beautiful and wonderful it is to be in-person, I was like ‘oh yeah, this is better.’ It’s just nice. The families are happy.”
Helping out this year are more than 250 volunteer “elves,” guiding clients around the sections of toys and carrying up boxes to be wrapped and loaded into the car.
Toy store committee chair Lisa Koorbusch spent much of her shift running back and forth from the restock room as toys flew off the table.
Volunteering at the Toy Store is a holiday tradition for Koorbusch. Now in her 11th year as an elf, she has watched the donations grow from filling a part of the church’s basement into the multi-room trove she has to practically climb over when searching for particular toys.
Koorbusch called it “a gift” to volunteer for the toy store, one of P2P’s most popular volunteer opportunities of the year and one she said she loves to do with her family, especially her two daughters.
“It’s such a wonderful thing to know that, maybe if somebody’s struggling to put some gifts under the tree, that we’re able to help out this time of year a little bit,” she said. “It’s really about making a child’s Christmas better.”
The huge volume and turnout has not gone unrecognized by the rest of the staff, including assistant program manager Flor Gonzalez, who celebrated her first year working the toy store monitoring all the donations for the giveaway.
Gonzalez said she was in awe of the sheer volume of offerings that were sent in over summer toy drives, community collections and church events.
“You see hundreds of kids bringing a toy to the front of the church, and it was just such an amazing sight,” Gonzalez said of one recent drive. “I get goosebumps when I’m talking about it because (of) the impact that these kids probably may or may not know.”
With so many items available, there are a whole range of options for parents of kids from infants to teens to choose from.
P2P client Stephanie Paul said she was thrilled to find the LEGO space mission set she had hoped to buy her two sons, the first item of the day that she would bring home.
She had seen the LEGO set online when checking prices on holiday presents, and now she found the “perfect one” for Christmas, along with an electronic stunt car, two books and a Jenga set.
“It’s amazing because sometimes the holidays can get a little tough with bills and stuff like that, and you can actually find a place (where) you can get them,” she said. “It’s something they can both do together.”
Political figures from across Fairfield county were present to celebrate the opening of the toy store Thursday morning, including state Sen. Ceci Maher, state Reps. Matt Blumenthal, Lucy Dathan and recently elected Rachel Khanna, Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling and Darien First Selectman Monica McNally.
Maher, who served as P2P’s executive director for 14 years, said it was phenomenal to see how engaged the community was, especially coming out of the pandemic.
“You cannot underestimate the impact for a parent to be able to give their child a toy at Christmas,” she said. “It is essential to be a part of a tradition in our communities where children have something to open on Christmas day.”
Blumenthal said the toy store was a wonderful example of generosity in the community, in large part thanks to the many volunteers and donors who made it possible.
“What you’re seeing here with this wonderful generosity, these wonderful toys, is a recognition that these kids deserve to have just as good as everybody else, and deserve to have that joy and that pride,” Blumenthal said. “A lot of kids are going to get it because of all the work of these volunteers, these donors and the staff.”
“There’s so much stress in the world right now,” said state Sen. Bob Duff, who represents Norwalk and Darien. “With the pandemic and every other issue that’s out there, this really does bring a lot of joy to people, both by giving the gifts and receiving them. And I think it makes our community stronger.”