Bags of pre-packaged toys filled every seat in the meeting room at Parker Hill Church as the Gift for Kids toy distribution began. (Photos/Eric Deabill)

DICKSON CITY – Thousands of children across northeastern Pennsylvania will have presents under the tree this Christmas, thanks to an ongoing partnership between Catholic Social Services of the Diocese of Scranton and the Friends of the Poor.

On Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, more than 500 families picked up gifts as part of the annual Gifts for Kids holiday toy distribution.

“It’s a privilege to be able to serve those in need. It’s the mission of Catholic Social Services and what better time than Christmas to be able to reach out and help, particularly children, celebrate the Christmas and holiday season,” Mary Theresa Malandro, Diocesan Secretary for Catholic Human Services and Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Social Services, said.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the distribution process changed significantly this year. Instead of being held at the University of Scranton’s Byron Center, where parents could select their own toys from tables, this year’s distribution was held by drive-thru in an effort to promote social distancing.

Volunteers with Catholic Social Services and Friends of the Poor distribute 10,000+ toys on Dec. 15, 2020. (Photos/Eric Deabill)

“They (families) registered and we took the information and spent four days putting all of the gift bags together,” Malandro explained.

Parker Hill Church generously donated space for volunteers to sort and package all of the gifts. The parking lot of the Church also provided ample room for families to wait in line during the distribution process.

“It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s a blessing, it’s a privilege to be able to help everybody in the community,” Tracey Mulrain, Director of Catholic Social Services’ Offices in Lackawanna & Luzerne County, said.

In the Scranton-area, approximately 530 families registered for assistance. That translated to more than 10,000 gifts for roughly 1,800 children.

Catholic Social Services and Friends of the Poor received 7,700 toys from the Marine Corps ‘Toys for Tots’ programs and supplemented that with gifts provided by community members, Diocesan parishes, schools and other organizations.

“Our biggest age range was 9-11,” Meghan Loftus, President and CEO of Friends of the Poor, said. “We try to make sure that each child has one large and one or two small toys, along with stocking stuffers like animals, puzzles, books, that sort of thing.”

Because of the pandemic, many families registered for help for the first time.

“It has been challenging in the middle of the coronavirus,” Malandro explained. “Many families and parents have become unemployed and cannot give to their children as they would like to, so I think this year, more than ever it is a real privilege to be able to help those that wouldn’t have a Christmas.”

While organizers of the toy distribution say they’re happy to be able to bring some holiday cheer just before Christmas, they are unfortunately well aware of the need and poverty in this region.

“Our poverty rate in this area is 25-percent, compared to the state and federal level that is only 12 or 12 and a-half percent,” Loftus said. “One in four people in our area live in poverty and need some sort of assistance. That is what our agencies do 365 days a year.”

In addition to the toy giveaway in Scranton, Catholic Social Services also sponsored several other toy distributions this week. Nearly 400 families in Carbondale and another 400 families in Hazleton received toys as well in separate distributions. Families involved in youth programs through Catholic Social Services in Wilkes-Barre also received toys from the agency this holiday season.