More than 360 Lehigh Acres children received Christmas presents thanks to the efforts of Lehigh Acres Community Services, which passed out toys to families that were eligible to receive them. The toy giveaway took place two days last week.
Families came to the area help agency on Plaza Drive last Thursday, Dec. 20, to pick up packed bags of toys to match each child's age and gender.
Thanks to the generous help from volunteers who packed the toys in big plastic bags on the few days prior to Thursday, everything went off without a problem, according to Rae Nicely, the executive of the agency.
Divani Torres, 3, daughter of Nancy Ortega, is a little shy as she shows off a toy for Christmas.
"People were told to come in at 2 p.m. and the give-away would last to 4 p.m. They signed in to confirm their identity and eligibility and "runners" brought them a big bag of toys. Nicely said that due to the generosity of the people of Lehigh and the many organizations, the agency was able to hand out at least three toys to each child, which amounted more than a thousand toys.
Mostly families - moms and dads - came to pick up the toys. Some brought their children with them since classes had ended at local schools.
But there was no peeking, the kids were told, not until Christmas morning.
Nicely said the more than 360 youngsters who are celebrating Christmas this week is the largest number ever in the program for years that has given away toys for those who may not have had any toys under the Christmas tree.
"It's just been fantastic with all the help from the people here in Lehigh. They always help. That is why we have such a great community," she said. Nicely was wearing "reindeer horns" as families came and went with their bags of toys.
Nicely said there were about 20 volunteers who helped to pack the toys according to the child's age and gender and those who retrieved them from a meeting room packing with big plastic bags of toys. On each bag was the name of the family to receive the gifts.
"I just can't say enough about the overwhelming support from this community," Nicely said again.
"A lot of people are still having hard times; many of our residents are out of work and a lot of people here need help," she added.
Nicely has been the director of Lehigh Community Services for five years and she has watched as the number of people seeking help to get food and to pay utility bills has grown tremendously. During Thanksgiving, her agency and several other groups and clubs in Lehigh, handed out a Thanksgiving dinner bag to those in need.
"We were really delighted and happy to see the 23 children from the Mormon church in Lehigh bring us all kinds of new toys last week. It has been a good holiday."
Bicycles were handed out earlier last week with the help of the American Legion in Lehigh, said Jim Phebus, who has volunteered for Lehigh Community Services for several years.
"It was a nice time when the families came here though to get their children's toys. We also provided lots of fresh bread given to the agency and told them to take whatever they wanted," he said.
The two women who manned the table where families first stopped to show their identity - Senaida Gierrero and Roseanna Alvardo - said every family that came said "Thank You" or "Gracious." Both are employed by Lehigh Community Services and speak Spanish and English.
"It's just a nice thing to watch ... makes me remember as a kid when I got toys," Phebus reminisced.