FALL RIVER — 'Tis the season to spread holiday cheer.
It's a mission that volunteers at Citizens for Citizens embrace each year with its Operation Christmas program, making sure no stocking is left empty and presents can be found under every local family's tree come Christmas morning.
But this year more than ever before, it seems a more monumental task, said Chrystal Arpa, director of community resources at Fall River's Citizens for Citizens, which organizes the annual toy giveaway.
Need is up — as applications continue to mount ahead of the Dec. 9 deadline — and donations are down, which has Arpa worried.
"People are scared this year," Arpa said. "The cost of food alone is hurting people, they're having a hard time making that end, so I think between the food pantry and Christmas I'm going to be very busy."
According to Arpa, CFC's Operation Christmas serves roughly 4,000 in the Fall River area each year. But this year applications are piling up faster than usual, she said, as many families cite struggles due to recent layoffs and rising cost of living due to inflation.
"I feel like my pile is bigger this year than it was last year at this time," said Arpa. As of Friday, she said there were already 2,000 applications in the computer, as well as a box loaded with requests that had yet to be accounted for.
"The fact that I already have 2,000 (applications) in the computer is absolutely insane," she said, noting that usually at that time there are around 700 to 800 families in the computer, and many submissions come in the week of the deadline.
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CFC doesn't receive any funding or grants for its Operation Christmas program, relying strictly on donations from the community — from individuals to local groups and organizations, like Marine Corps League in Somerset, to local businesses.
But this year, Arpa said, places they've turned to for donations are struggling and some have said they aren't able to help.
"It is a tough time for everybody ... it does scare me," she said.
Applications are accepted until the Dec. 9 deadline, with no limit on number, and Arpa and her CFC counterpart in Taunton "pull rabbits out of our hat every year," Arpa said.
Taunton's Christmas toy donation program
Arpa works closely with Debbie Araujo, who has organized Taunton's Christmas toy donation program for 42 years, teaming up to shop for gifts and bounce ideas off each other.
"She pulls off amazing things ... we are very good at collaborating," Arpa said.
In Taunton, CFC serves approximately 2,500 to 3,000 kids annually, said Araujo, who is also expecting that number to rise this year. Araujo's office is seeing a lot of new faces who've never applied before, having recently received 50 applications in just one day.
"It's a tough year for a lot of people. A lot of parents are gonna have to make choices between putting oil in the tank and putting presents under the tree," Araujo said. "We're here, working hard, reaching out to people to help us to help those families... no gift is too small."
Luckily, Araujo said she can always rely on her Taunton family to come through for their neighbors when times are rough.
"I am very fortunate in Taunton. They call us the Christmas City and we stand well by our name because they are very generous here in the city," said Araujo, who receives toy contributions and financial support from a number of loyal participants each year.
And of course, both Arpa and Araujo couldn't make any of this magic happen for local families without the help of their elves.
Operation Christmas distribution day is Dec. 17
Operation Christmas efforts extend well beyond distribution day, which this year is Dec. 17. Throughout the month of December, Arpa said over 40 volunteers "give their life to me. They're on speed dial. I call them and say I need a pickup and they are right there. They are amazing people."
Volunteers, most who've been with the program several years, are made up of church groups, local businesses, community members, and people who have been aided by CFC in the past and are looking to pay it forward.
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They're doing donation pickups, they're helping turn Fall River's 822 Eastern Ave. location into "Christmas Central," they're with Arpa late into the night after they get out of work helping her sort gifts, and by her side on the day of the giveaway.
"That's what makes this program work. Without them there would be no Operations Christmas," Arpa said.
Operation Christmas collects donations to help brighten the holidays for children up to age 12. Every child will get a major gift, two to three minor gifts, stocking stuffers, hats and mittens, and every family will get at least one family game to promote family time, Arpa said.
To sign up, fill out an application at http://cfcinc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/2022-Operation-Christmas-Application.pdf. To make a donation visit http://cfcinc.org/programs/operation-christmas/
All CFC programs are income eligible, serving low and moderate income households in the greater Fall River and Taunton areas, but Arpa notes that they've never turned anyone away for Christmas.
"This is the time of year that everyone needs help and if they're walking through this door and they're asking for toys they're not loaded, something's going on and we're gonna help them," Arpa said.
Operation Christmas distribution day will be held Saturday, Dec. 17, at both the Fall River location, 822 Eastern Ave., and the Taunton location, 1 Taunton Green. Families will be assigned a specific time slot to arrive to pick up their gifts.
For Arpa, this is her favorite time of year and Operation Christmas is her favorite CFC-run program.
"It's the time of year we can all be kids and get away with it. ... it's that magical time of year that makes life worth living sometimes," Arpa said. "So when this all comes together and you see the families so happy, and you get to play with all those toys and relive your childhood ... it makes everything worth it."
This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Citizens for Citizens collecting for Operation Christmas toy giveaway