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For the second year in a row, two longtime Jacksonville-area Christmas toy giveaways for children will help Santa Claus in different formats because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The 23rd annual Children's Christmas Party of Jacksonville will not be in person at its typical Prime Osborn Convention Center home, instead distributing toys to needy families through two child-serving nonprofits. And the 40th annual J.P. Hall Jr. Children's Charities Christmas Party in Green Cove Springs will return to the Clay County Fairgrounds on Dec. 18 but as a drive-thru toy distribution.

The decision to forgo the in-person event for the second year in a row was painful but necessary, Diane Halverson, executive director of the Jacksonville event, said.

"We were disappointed last year when we had to change … from holding our big, annual party to handing out toys through other organizations," she said. "During the second year of the pandemic we kept close watch on the virus and knew that the threat was still there, especially with the delta variant this past fall. Having 12,000 people under the roof of the convention center, including 5,000 young children who did not have enough time to be fully vaccinated, just wasn’t a good idea."

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The 2020 toy distribution plan, in partnership with afterschool programs run by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Northeast Florida and Communities in Schools, "worked out successfully and we were fortunate to be able to use this method again this year," Halverson said.

At the last in-person event in 2019, roughly 4,000 Jacksonville children received about 50,000 toys. Last year the nonprofits were given about 15,000 toys for about 5,100 children in their afterschool programs. This year 5,700 children ages 5 to 17 will receive 27,000 toys the week of Dec. 13.

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"They will have holiday parties and hand out our bags of toys. Each bag will have a few toys and a pencil that says 'Stay Smart. Stay in School,'" Halverson said.

About 15,000 of the toys were purchased through Group Sales, a Cincinnati wholesale toy company, and 12,000 were donated by two local toy companies, JA-RU and National Life, and other sources, she said.

Despite the pandemic and related economic impacts, the community has continued to support the party.

"The sufficient funds we were able to raise during both of the pandemic years are a great testament to our generous community and their faith in us to fulfill our mission," Halverson said. "We are lucky to be able to reach so many children … who might not have received gifts during this difficult Christmastime in the lives of so many families."

Erin Brooks, 2, is excited about the new doll she received at the 2019 Children’s Christmas Party of Jacksonville at the Prime Osborn Convention Center. The 2020 and 2021 events were canceled because of the pandemic, with toys distributed to needy children through two nonprofits.

Halverson and the party's board of directors hope to return to the Prime Osborn in 2022.

"We want to go back to the big party," she said. "The best part is Santa and Mrs. Claus and the 800 other volunteers there to greet the children with smiles of welcome and toys in hand. We can’t wait."

The Jacksonville event was founded in 1999 by local philanthropists Travis and Margaret Storey. They wanted to fill a gap between the increasing number of needy families and the Dorcas Drake Christmas Party, a holiday institution since the 1950s that was struggling after the death of its founder.

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Counting on charity and passing it on

In Clay County, the J.P. Hall Christmas Party typically serves about 1,500 to 1,800 children, newborns through age 14.

Longtime organizer Virginia Hall said the drive-thru method the event used last year worked well. Children and families waited in line in their vehicles to receive bags of toys through the windows, with Santa waving to them from a parked fire truck.

She said her phone has been "ringing off the hook" for weeks with callers seeking information about the party. The calls started earlier than usual this year, she said, making her wonder whether more families are economically stressed.

"It is so hard to tell," Hall said.

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But clearly many parents count on the party to provide their children a Christmas they would otherwise not be able to afford, she said.

No one will be allowed out of their vehicles and children must be in the vehicle to receive gifts. Overnight stays in the fairgrounds parking lot will be banned. Proof of Clay County residency will be required.

The event was created by Hall's father, businessman J.P. Hall Jr., as part of the Children’s Charities nonprofit he founded to honor his father, who was Clay sheriff for a state-record 36 years. The charity also has a college scholarship program.

Virginia Hall began volunteering at the event as a child and is now grooming her two sons, ages 29 and 28, to soon take over.

"It's time to pass it on to my kids," she said.

bcravey@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4109

CHRISTMAS PARTY OF JACKSONVILLE

Toy donations are no longer being accepted for this year's giveaway. Monetary donations are welcome anytime but are best made before the end of the year. To donate via Paypal or get more information, go to ccpoj.org.

J.P. HALL JR. CHILDREN'S CHARITIES CHRISTMAS PARTY

The event will be 9 a.m. to noon Dec. 18 at the Clay County Fairgrounds, 2497 Florida 16, Green Cove Springs. Unwrapped new toys can be donated at any Clay County fire station. Volunteers are needed to help prepare the site at 9 a.m. Dec. 17. To donate or get more information, go to jphallcharities.com.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: COVID-19 alters Jacksonville, Clay County toy giveaways for Christmas

Source : https://news.yahoo.com/covid-19-again-forces-change-030854547.html

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