MANCHESTER — Rola Ayoub gave a small fist pump Sunday afternoon after a Salvation Army volunteer dug up a small blue stuffed elephant out of a box for her 15-month-old son.
“I know it will make his face light up,” she said. “I know it will make him happy.”
On Sunday, the Manchester mom was among hundreds who received toys for children under 13 at the Salvation Army’s annual Toy Shop, set up at the Expo Center at the DoubleTree hotel. The event is supported by the New Hampshire Union Leader Santa Fund for the Salvation Army.
The toy pickup was to span two days as part of COVID-19 precautions to spread out the nearly 1,200 families.
Ayoub, a single mom, also picked up toys for her other two children, 3 and 7.
“This is an amazing thing. This is awesome,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like that before. This is my first year doing it.”
Volunteers helped the parents carry the gifts in oversized trash bags. Parents left with four gifts and many stocking stuffers for each child, a stuffed animal for each child 6 or under, a family board game and a Market Basket gift card.
An estimated 10,000 toys were to be distributed over the two days. Most of the toys are donated through events such as Toys for Tots drives or the New Hampshire Motorcyclists Rights’ Organization Toy Drop. In all, about 2,500 children will receive gifts.
The Salvation Army Manchester Corps extended the deadline for application by several weeks this year, according to Capts. Scott and Nora McNeil, who took over as corps officers in August.
“We saw more first-time people,” said Scott McNeil. “Our numbers are a little bit greater than previous years.”
Oftentimes, parents leave with toys they never imagined being able to give to their children, which the O’Neils said is “heartwarming.” Many families needed the assistance because of an unexpected challenge or they’re living on the poverty line.
“What a blessing. At one point in my life, I was on that end,” Capt. Nora McNeil said. “It’s wonderful to be able to help.”
The Union Leader Santa Fund for the Salvation Army has raised more than $162,614 so far this year to support a number of causes throughout the year, including providing winter clothing, summer camp for kids and the supermarket gift cards at Christmastime.
“It is such a blessing, oh my goodness,” said Sherell Clagon of Manchester, who selected toys for her 7-year-old son.
“Because I am on a very low income right now, this has helped me out so much,” she said. Work has been down during the pandemic, she said.
One toy she picked was a remote-controlled Ford F-150 pickup truck.
“We are very grateful for it,” Clagon said of the Toy Shop.
Kelsey Carter of Manchester said this year has been more tight, especially with having been on maternity leave. She has three children — 7, 4 and 2 months.
For her older children she selected toys with STEM educational components and hands-on learning.
“They all have to wait until everyone is awake,” Carter said of Christmas morning when the gifts will be opened. “They don’t get to open them early.”
She’s glad the Salvation Army pulled off the shop again given the challenges surrounding the pandemic.
“It definitely benefits a lot of people,” Carter said. “There was definitely a good selection for all ages and for boys and girls.”
For Ayoub it’s been a tough year, but her family is ready to celebrate Christmas in their own apartment for the first time. The family will open the gifts on Christmas Eve.
“Everything I was hoping to get, I was able to get,” Ayoub said.
Santa Fund donations can be made several ways:
• By sending a check to the Union Leader Santa Fund, c/o New Hampshire Union Leader, P.O. Box 9555, Manchester, NH 03108