Until last year, Jennifer Hodges had never relied on charity for Christmas.
But Hurricane Ian swamped her Orlo Vista neighborhood in late September, flooding her home on Hope Circle and washing away the modest savings she would have used to fill Christmas lists of her two granddaughters, ages 8 and 6.
The Orange County Mayor’s Holiday Toy Drive, which has collected and distributed over 74,000 gifts to struggling families since 2011, helped Hodges find a bicycle, a scooter and some crayons for her artsy grandkids.
“I was so grateful and so were they,” Hodges said.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings set a goal of collecting 10,000 toys this year — about 500 more than last year.
“Our local families, many of them, still have economic challenges and need a little extra support to make their children’s holiday joyous and bright,” he said while promoting the toy drive last week. “A single toy can do just that.”
Needy families are identified by a dozen nonprofit partners and staff at Orange County’s 13 Neighborhood Centers for Families, which also provide after-school programming, counseling, parent education classes and many other services.
Sharon Warner, executive director of the nonprofit Youth Families and Communities United, which serves people in Union Park and other neighborhoods, said their working parents are always grateful for the donation of a child’s toy.
“It’s a true blessing for our families,” she said. “Toys are sometimes extra things they can’t always afford.”
Warner said her organization asked for 160 toys for families this year.
“When kids go back [to school] after Christmas break, what’s the first thing everybody starts asking? ‘What did you get for Christmas?'” she said. “Nobody wants to be the one who says I got nothing. I think this makes a big difference.”
Warner said they try to pair families with gifts they can use together — board games, playing cards, a football or soccer ball, or a STEM kit, tools and activities to stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering and math.
Toys can be donated online through the county’s virtual toy store. The online selection includes a 26-inch bicycle for $150; wireless earbuds for $33; a Jurassic Park playset with a stegosaurus action figure for $25; a Barbie doll dressed in a lab coat for about $20; and a posable Buzz Lightyear figure in a flight suit for less than $11.
Monday, Dec. 4 is the deadline for buying a gift from the county’s online store.
All purchases ship directly to Orange County’s Holiday Warehouse to be distributed by the Neighborhood Centers and the not-for-profits.
You can give offline, too.
Donors can drop off new, unwrapped donations at 37 sites around the county, including 15 library locations, participating Orange County parks and six fire-rescue stations, one in each commission district. Don’t drop off cash, gift cards or plush toys.
Other drop-off sites are the Back to Nature Wildlife Refuge; Barnett Park Recreation Center; Bear Creek Recreation Complex; Bithlo Community Park; Capehart Park; East Orange District Park Recreation Center
Fort Gatlin Recreation Complex; Goldenrod Recreation Center; Meadow Woods Recreation Center; the Orange County Regional History Center; the Renaissance Senior Center; Shadow Bay Park/Lake Cane Tennis Center; Silver Star Recreation Center; South Econ Recreation Center; Tibet-Butler Preserve; and the West Orange Recreation Center.
The fire-rescue locations are: District 1, Station 31, 6116 S. Apopka Vineland Road; District 2, Station 40, 5570 Beggs Road; District 3, Station 81, 901 S. Econlockhatchee Trail; District 4, Station 83, 11950 Lake Underhill Road; District 5, Station 67, 10679 University Blvd.; and District 6, Station 51,1700 W. Oak Ridge Road.
The final day for drop-off donations is Monday, Dec. 11.