Keeping the holidays happy: Bay Area organizations rely on virtual efforts to get toys to kids

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- There is no denying the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way agencies and organizations collect, distribute and donate this holiday season.

Charities around the Bay Area are meeting those challenges by relying on a virtual approach.

"I did this last year and it was a completely different world," Sgt. Salvador Olveralayna told ABC7 News.

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Sgt. Olveralayna with Marine Toys for Tots, San Jose explained that by this time last year, the organization had between 30-40 event requests. This year, he said that number is down to seven.

He added, typically, there are more than 370 donation drop sites throughout San Jose. However, this year there are 73.

With COVID-19 keeping many spots shuttered, he said the program is struggling.

"There's not a lot of companies, there's not a lot of places that are open," he shared. "There's not a lot of people wanting to host, as far as job sites, because of the fact that you're dropping off a toy, you might have that risk of contracting COVID-19."

Olveralayna said this year, Toys for Tots is relying on virtual donations.

By visiting the program's website, people can donate money and toys without having to come into contact with anyone.

"That'll go directly to our campaign here," he said.

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As an example, Olveralayna said Apple is asking its employees to purchase a toy to be sent directly to the Toys for Tots warehouse in San Jose.

"That seems to be the approach a lot of people are taking," he said. "You can also go buy a toy at Target, box it up and then ship it to our warehouse as well."

In San Francisco, Salvation Army Divisional Secretary Major Matthew Madsen said the organization has seen a 50-percent increase in the number of people needing help. Unfortunately, he said they've also noticed a 50-percent drop in locations willing to collect toys.

"If you increase the need by 50-percent and decrease our out our ability to get toys, you can see how the math doesn't add up," Major Madsen explained. "It puts us in a very difficult position."

He said there are plenty of virtual opportunities for volunteers looking to be of service.

"Thank God for the tech industry. They're keeping a lot of things running right now," Madsen told ABC7 News. "Certainly our efforts to serve others would have been bolstered by the ability to do what we're doing right now, using Zoom to be able to do an interview."

He continued, "We're trying to keep things as contactless as possible- protecting the people we serve, protecting our volunteers, protecting people who are wanting to donate and making it easier on others."

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The Salvation Army's Red Kettle campaign will still have a presence throughout the city, Madsen explained.

"But we've got some very strict COVID protocols that we're following- wearing of the masks, the social distancing," he said. "A lot of people aren't wanting to use cash right now, because money can be a dirty thing."

He said at each location, there will be an option for people to donate virtually.

"If you take your phone, and it's got radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, or Apple Pay or Google Pay- those sorts of things," Madsen shared. "You could snap a QR code and be able to make a donation that way, and help protect each other while continuing to support the things that we do."

At this point, he said the Salvation Army isn't intending on reducing the number of kettles around the city.

However, he said because of COVID-19 there are some locations and some businesses that are not allowing an actual bell ringer.

"So we are limited. In fact, about 30-percent to 40-percent of our locations are not able to be placed this year," he added. "So we're praying that the ones that we do staff will do better to help make up for those that we've lost."

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Major Madsen said because of the economy, the Salvation Army is currently seeing people who are normally donors now asking for help.

"We're glad to be able to step up and help make that difference," he shared. "And I would assure people not to feel ashamed. It's not their fault that this virus has happened. It's not their fault that the economy has done what it's done."

"But, it's the community effort that will make the difference," Madsen told ABC7 News.

He said there is a great need for volunteers. The organization is still looking to staff kettle locations and still trying to collect toys.

In years past, the Salvation Army has invited people to come to its location. However, COVID-19 does not allow those types of gatherings.

"We're going to be pre-bagging all the toys per family and then distributing them over many days to keep social distancing in mind," he said. "We're going to need volunteer help in selecting the toys that have been given and purchased. So, we're going to need help with that as well."

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While the virus has impacted many things, it isn't stopping virtual efforts. For the San Francisco Firefighters Toy Drive, one click is all you need to contribute.

"It's very easy. People can purchase toys and they will ship them to us," event coordinator, Jill Peeler told ABC7 News about yougivegoods.com. "Then they will also send them a tax deductible receipt on our behalf, which is amazing."

Peeler explained the program is run by San Francisco Fire Fighters Local 798.

She said in her 25 years of contribution, she would've never imagined the program would require people to sign COVID-19 releases to receive toys.

Peeler shared the most notable changes to the program during the pandemic.

"Our building is closed to the public," she explained. "We're asking people not to come to our building, unless they have a scheduled appointment."

Additionally, the toy drive will be organized as a drive-by giveaway.

"At the beginning of COVID, we did one drive-by toy giveaway where people came in their cars. They had their masks on and their gloves, and they would be directed to the front of our building. We'd ask them to pop their trunk, and our volunteers all did social distancing," she described. "It was pretty amazing. They put a bag of toys in their trunk, and they would shut their trunk and would drive off. So, we are going to try doing that this year."

According to Peeler, usually the program involves firefighters, their families, and companies who show up to volunteer. She said that isn't an option this year.

"Right now, we are asking all of our San Francisco fire stations to commit to a few days, just their members, to actually help run the toy giveaways and to bag up the toys," she explained.

She said this year, all the toys will be pre-bagged. Peeler said the program is in need of donations of "ethnic dolls and any cultural books."

She said beyond toys, Lysol wipes, hand sanitizer, gloves and masks are also needed.

"We do not want to get anyone sick," she emphasized. "I am asking applicants to sign a COVID-19 waiver release, just saying if they have any symptoms, if anyone in their house is sick to please not come to their appointment that day. We'll reschedule it, or we'll find a way for them to get toys."

She said they're taking extra precautions to make sure the events run smoothly and remain safe.

"At one point we were like, 'Should we have the toy program? Is it realistic? How can we do this safely,'" Peeler shared. "It took a lot of hours and conversations and figuring things out, and we're still figuring things out."

Across the board, there is a grand effort to bring some holiday cheer and much needed holiday help to families across the Bay Area.

"This person is asking, not for much, just for toys," Sgt. Olveralayna said, "To simply put a smile on their child's face."

To donate to Toys for Tots San Jose, click here.

To donate or volunteer with the Salvation Army San Francisco, click here.

To donate to the San Francisco Firefighters Toy Program, click here.
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