Courtesy of the United Way

A shrinking pool of donors, expanding community needs and tightening pandemic precautions are requiring Connecticut’s charities to bring significant creativity to the holiday toy drives, clothing closets and other fundraisers they rely on each year.

The iconic symbol of holiday donations is The Salvation Army’s red kettle hanging outside supermarkets as the bell rings.

“We anticipate a significant loss in funds from what our red kettles would typically raise,” said Major Carl Avery, divisional secretary of the The Salvation Army Southern New England Division. “We’re trying to push some online and noncontact initiatives.”

Avery said that all kettles now come equipped with a QR code that people can scan and use to donate online. The QR code works if people are actually coming out to the stores to see the kettles, but Avery said that due to stay-at-home orders and closed businesses, fewer people are.

“Foot traffic in shopping centers is down like 50% this year,” Avery said. “For our foot traffic campaign to be successful in front of stores you need people. If they are not there and they do not have coins in their pockets because of the national coin shortage, that makes it difficult to raise those funds.”

But in addition to getting people to donate, The Salvation Army is also struggling to get people to volunteer.

“I think of places like Danbury where I know they are having an awful time just trying to find anybody who is willing to come out,” Avery said. “I think those places hardest hit by COVID, there’s more of that fear in volunteers to come out.”

At the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford, efforts have ramped up for the annual “Adopt a Family” initiative which is continuing almost as it has in years past — but with many more families in need of support.

The program involves one family, individual or company “adopting” an anonymous family. The anonymous family gives a wish list of items that the volunteer individual or group will purchase to help out with the burden of holiday shopping.

Julia Pelletier, marketing and community outreach specialist at the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford said this year, many families are requesting more than just toys.

“The need is so much greater than last year,” Pelletier said. “It’s not even a need for just fun items and gifts. It’s the need for basic necessities like food and household items. We just need to make sure we can provide for those basic needs.”

For those who “adopt” a family’s wish list through the United Way this year and don’t feel comfortable going out to the store to buy the gifts, a COVID-19 related modification allows people to donate gift cards.

Additionally, the United Way has set up online gift lists so people can online shop and directly send the items to the families in need without ever leaving home. So far the program has fulfilled the wishlists of 99 families in the Meriden and Wallingford area.

At the Yale New Haven Hospital, the annual toy drive has also been modified to fit public health guidelines. Donors are encouraged to support the Toy Closet Program or selecting items to purchase from the Yale New Haven Children’s hospital wish list.

“A medical treatment can be scary and lonely for a child. While 2020 has changed many things, the one constant in the world is the smile on a child’s face when they receive a new toy,” said
Diane Petra, co-chair, YNHH Auxiliary Toy Closet Program in a press release. “We remain committed to supplying toys for our pediatric patients 365 days of the year, thanks to the generosity of our caring community of donors.”

Since not everyone who wants to give back this holiday season or even afterwards has the means to do so, St. Vincent de Paul food pantry and shelter in Middletown has an alternative that just involves cleaning old clothes out of the closet.

“A lot of churches have these clothing closets where they would accept donations and sort things out,” said Peter Keast, director of community relations and development at St. Vincent de Paul. “All of those closed in (March). The demand didn’t go away but the supply of available spaces to go get clothing did go away.”

Keast recognized this problem and teamed up with area Goodwill stores. The resulting partnership means that community members can request St. Vincent de Paul labels to attach to donations. For every donation to partnering Goodwill stores with a St. Vincent de Paul label attached, 15 cents will be donated back to the shelter. The money will create clothing vouchers, which allow those in need to shop with dignity.

Courtesy of the United Way

“Poverty is humiliating,” Keast said. “Everything about it. They have to go to a food pantry to start with, there’s all sorts of humiliating things going on. If you give vouchers like these to people and say, ‘Go shop for your own clothing,’ it is such a dignified experience. It puts them back in control — it’s a privilege. It’s so much better for them to pick their own stuff than to go through someone’s closet and say, ‘This will do.’”

The vouchers are handed out via social workers and case managers rather than just to anyone who asks.

“They do all the assessment,” Keast said. “We are not handing out vouchers at the front door so people can exchange them for cigarettes or anything else. It’s not currency. It’s a voucher that lets a social worker aid someone in need with either clothing or household merchandise.”

On top of clothing, Keast said that St. Vincent de Paul is also working to get essential food items out to those in need. The food pantry is partnering with the USDA for a Farms-to-Families event.

“The USDA puts together a 25-pound box and in the box will be milk, eggs, chicken, produce — healthy food basically,” Keast said. “It’s procured from farmers and delivered into communities.”

A tractor trailer with 1,100 boxes of food will arrive in Middletown on Dec. 21, in an “open your trunk drive through” program.

Keast encouraged anyone in need of food to go. The event will take place at 16 Stack St. in Middletown and no identification is required.

“It’s just to help with nutrition during tough months,” Keast said. “A lot of unemployment, a lot of food insecurity right now. This is one of those things we wanted to do just prior to the holidays.”

Due to COVID-19, the financial hardships for families extend beyond the holiday season. As of October 2020, 113,847 people in Connecticut were unemployed. In November 2019 this number was 72,373.

“We are still trying to provide that COVID relief on top of our Christmas relief,” Avery said. “We are seeing people that we have not seen before because of this added pressure on them.”

How to Donate:

The Salvation Army

United Way

Yale New Haven Hospital Toy Closet

St. Vincent de Paul