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They put out an SOS for toys for migrant kids. Thousands responded.

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Picture: REUTERS/Issei Kato

By Theresa Vargas

The young boy in the red and black jacket didn’t need to look through the toys sitting on the blanket in front of him. As other children walked past stuffed animals, puzzles and building blocks, looking for items that called to them, he made his way straight to a dump truck almost half his size.

If you had peeked in on that moment, which took place outside a Virginia church, you would have seen that boy holding the truck tightly.

You would have also seen a girl in pink glasses gravitate toward a small red trampoline and a boy in a fuzzy brown hat clutch a Paw Patrol puzzle.

The scene was one of joy and abundance for children who don’t often get to experience both at once.

It was also a scene that almost didn’t happen.

Days before the volunteer collective Food Justice DMV planned to hold the giveaway event on Dec. 17, founder Denise Woods sent out an SOS, letting supporters know that volunteers didn’t have enough food or toys this year to give to the migrant families they serve in the Washington, D.C., region. What makes the group’s toy collection different from the many others that take place at this time of year is volunteers gather secondhand items and get them to families who might fall beyond the reach of other organized efforts, because of language barriers and deportation fears.

“It pains me that people who have lost all coming here, may not celebrate Navidad the way they deserve and the way we want: a warm plate of food from home: beans, rice oil and maseca and a side of gifts,” Woods wrote in an email at the time. “I am not sure where the Christmas spirit is . . .”

In an earlier column, I told you about that SOS and the desperate messages volunteers were receiving from parents. What happened next left volunteers overwhelmed, in the best way.

People in D.C., Maryland and Virginia started looking through their homes and gathering the toys their children and grandchildren no longer used. They then drove them to one of several places that were collecting items on behalf of Food Justice DMV.

They brought puzzles and board games and art kits. They brought a toy stove, a toy shopping cart and a bike. They brought small stuffed animals and medium stuffed animals and jumbo stuffed animals.

They brought so many items to one church that bulging bags and boxes lined the side of the building. At another church, the items filled four rooms.

“It is a tsunami of gorgeous gently loved gifts,” Woods said, assessing the piles. She described the outpouring as “something out of a movie.”

Thousands of people throughout the Washington region responded. All it took was learning that children around them might go without to decide they wouldn’t let that happen. In addition to those who brought toys, people left gift cards, donated money online and offered to assist in other ways. People outside of the region also got involved. One young woman who moved out of state called her parents who still live in the area and asked them to go into her childhood bedroom and donate an old toy of hers.

By the time the giveaway event arrived, volunteers were carting truckloads of items to a church in Falls Church, Va. There, migrant families found them spread across blankets and tables. Children who might not have received anything for Christmas left with their arms full and their parents left carrying bags of items.

Amy Santay, who is 14, arrived with her mother, 8-year-old sister and 2-year-old cousin.

“I was really surprised,” she said. “I didn’t expect there would be that much stuff.”

Her sister got Barbie dolls and clothes, her cousin got miniature cars and dinosaurs, and she got a jacket and a red “really soft” blanket, which made her happy because sometimes at night her home gets cold. That all of those items were secondhand didn’t bother the teenager.

“It’s still usable,” she said. “Other kids can still use it.”

She said her mom is from Guatemala and works hard at her cleaning job to pay the rent and keep the family fed, but that doesn’t leave much money for her to buy presents during the holidays. That day at the church, the teenager said, her mom and the whole family left smiling.

“We were so thankful,” she said. “I just want to thank everyone so much.”

Churches in Maryland and Virginia, along with a D.C. restaurant, had been accepting toy drop offs, but after the giveaway event, Food Justice DMV began asking people who wanted to help to make online donations toward food purchases. They had collected more than enough toys.

So many toys were left over from the giveaway that community leaders were able to fill cars and trucks with them to take to families who couldn’t make it that day. They spent the past week delivering them. They even had enough to send some to Senegal and Guatemala, turning the local gift-giving effort into an international one.

“For so long I think we felt, not accurately, that no one really cared, because we were existing on fumes and praying we would make our food costs,” Woods said. “Now we know people do care and care deeply.”

Migrant families have been used in political stunts this year. The governors for Texas and Arizona have sent them on buses to the District to make a statement, and in doing so, have treated people as the problem instead of the country’s immigration system, which doesn’t provide clear paths to citizenship for many. An estimated 11,000 migrants have been bused to the District, and while many have since left the region, hundreds alone remain in local hotels and shelters. Many of those are children.

A donated item dropped off at those hotels in recent days was one that a mom had been hoping to give her daughter – a toy kitchen.

Woods cried as she talked about the impact of that and the many other gifts that were received. The strangers who came together to help the families recognized the system is broken, not people, she said.

“They wanted to support people who have escaped trauma, climate crisis, gang violence and the most inhumane things possible to arrive here,” she said. It didn’t matter that they didn’t speak the same language or share the same experiences as those families, she said. “Everyone wanted to make sure they felt welcomed and had a good Christmas, and that’s the true spirit of Christmas.”

Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before coming to The Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism.

This article was first published in The Washington Post.