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Giving the gift of a brighter Christmas

The toy collectidistributifor 19th Annual ElgCommunity Holiday Toy Drive. Lines formed from early this morning as hundreds waited outside Hemmens

The toy collection and distribution for the 19th Annual Elgin Community Holiday Toy Drive. Lines formed from early this morning as hundreds waited outside the Hemmens Cultural Center to get toys being handed out to area families in need Wednesday, December 18, 2013. Finished clients leave with their treasures in hand. | Joe Cyganowski~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 20, 2014 8:11AM

ELGIN — Sandra White already warned her children that they probably wouldn’t get anything for Christmas this year.

The 29-year-old mother of three moved to Elgin from Madison, Wis., in June to help her mother with the cost of rent. But two months later, her mother took off, leaving White to pay the rent and other living costs alone while still attempting to finish school herself.

But on Wednesday afternoon, after standing in line for 3½ hours, White was bringing home a bag of gifts for her children, picked up at the annual Elgin Community Holiday Toy Giveaway.

The Elgin Community Crisis Center has been conducting the toy giveaway program for 22 years, said Lea Conrad. She co-chairs the event with Dawn Niven and Mary Hyatt.

It began at the crisis center, gathering and giving presents to families in need. But the program continued to grow in both need and demand, she said.

It has been held in the Hemmens Cultural Center’s Exhibition Hall for more years than they can remember.

The first families began camping out at about noon Tuesday, getting in line to get first crack at the thousands of presents either donated locally or purchased through donations to the program, Conrad said.

The toys are collected at the crisis center, Grand Victoria Casino, Chase Credit Services and Elgin Township. They also are given through U.S. Marine Corps-sponsored Toys for Tots locations in Elgin and South Elgin, she said.

Funds to help cover the cost of renting the Hemmens’ basement facility and purchasing other needed toys from more than 30 community partners including businesses, nonprofits, foundations, banks and schools.

In 2012, a total of 1,100 families representing 2,800 to 2,900 children in Elgin and South Elgin were served through the program.

This was the first year that Jamie Colon had used the toy giveaway to get presents for her family. The single mother lost her customer service job in November 2012 and just had to renew her unemployment benefits, she said.

She had been standing in line for about 1½ hours to look for presents for her 14-year-old and the two children she has temporary custody of, ages 9 and 7, while their mother is incarcerated.

Like White, this was the only way the children would have something to open on Christmas, Colon said.

Both said they were looking for jobs — Colon in customer service, and White for a part-time job that would allow her to finish her cosmetology program so she can get better pay in the long-term.

Both found out about the program when they called the crisis center for help and resources to find presents.

Only residents from Elgin and South Elgin are eligible. It hurts her to turn away families from other parts of the area, Conrad said, knowing that not every community has something like the toy giveaway available.

Officer Kevin Snow of the Elgin Police Department said he talked to families with horrific stories of why help was so desperately needed, including one woman who had her brother’s recent death certificate to prove guardianship of his children.

With the doors closing at 6:30 p.m., Conrad said, some of the unclaimed toys and other presents will go to Toys for Tots to be redistributed to other area programs. Some toys, collected over the year or unused this year, are stored in a semi-trailer at Elgin Community College. That trailer is then used in the schools semi-driving program, to give practice on pulling a loaded trailer.

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