Diane Halverson is the executive director of the Children’s Christmas Party of Jacksonville, an annual charity event that hosts as many as 6,000 local kids who otherwise might not receive gifts during the holiday season. The First Coast holiday tradition and largest one-day giveaway event in Jacksonville is celebrating its 20th party on Saturday, Dec. 8 at the Prime F. Osborn Convention Center.
For those who are unfamiliar, what is the process of the Children’s Christmas Party of Jacksonville?
The way it works is children stand in line with their parents or guardians at the convention center to wait for the opportunity to receive three tickets (one ticket per toy of their choice). They also receive a bag full of novelty toys donated by JA-RU, a toy company located here in Jacksonville. The children also have a random chance of getting a specially stamped ticket that indicates they won an item in the Wheels Depot (bikes, scooters, wagons and tot riding toys). Last year, we had 600 items in our Wheels Depot. Since this event is run on a first-come, first-served basis, the families do not need to provide ID or an application.
How did the event start?
Travis and Margaret Storey saw on the television news how a local toy giveaway program needed Christmas toys just days before the event, so they decided to donate 100 bikes. The next year in 1999, Travis and Margaret saw the need to get involved again and started the Children’s Christmas Party of Jacksonville, an official 501(c)() nonprofit organization. That first year, Travis Storey, a well-liked Jacksonville accountant, was able to enlist the help of other prominent business leaders to raise enough funds in one month to purchase enough toys to hold a successful toy giveaway event.
How did you get involved in the event?
I got involved in year two in 2000, when my daughter and I were invited by Travis Storey to hand out toys. In 2002, I was asked to be on the Board of Directors and in the next five years, I also served as the volunteer coordinator. In 2007, I became the executive director. This is the kind of event that gets a volunteer “hooked” the first year they hand out toys. Just seeing the kids come in after standing in the cold and then seeing their faces when they choose their toys is such a heart-warming experience that you keep coming back year after year.
What feelings come to mind as the 20th anniversary of the event approaches?
Appreciation is my foremost feeling. I appreciate my own background and how my parents made Christmas such a special time. Even though they couldn’t afford expensive things, they gave us new toys special to us on Christmas morning. I appreciate the Jacksonville parents who participate in this event for taking a day off and bringing their children to receive toys, no matter the weather. I appreciate the more than 100 donors and sponsors for sharing their hard-earned funds and donated toys so we can give out lots of fun toys to the children who attend. I appreciate the thousand volunteers (most are employees from the sponsor companies) who take time out during the busy holiday week in December to serve others by helping to set up the event at the convention center and by handing out toys on party day. Jacksonville is indeed a community of givers who make sure the children have a merrier Christmas.
How has the event grown?
The number of toys we have purchased and the donated toys we have collected has grown over the years. Last year, we had 23,000 toys in the toy booths (plus 8,000 bags of JA-RU rack toys) in the building when the doors opened. JA-RU has donated over 1 million toys over the life of this nonprofit organization! The number of sponsor employee volunteers who help at the event and during set-up week has also risen steadily over the years. In total, our total funds raised reached an all-time high level in the past few years of around $250,000.
What has been the event’s impact?
The tangible impact over 20 years has been the incredible number of toys that have been purchased with donated funds and then placed in the hands of children who needed them. In many cases, the toys are educational (board games, electronic games and books), creative (crafts and art), sports-related (bikes, balls and sports equipment) and artistic (art supplies, Play-Doh and music instruments), so one can only imagine the positive impact on the development of thousands of children over the years. The more important intangible impact has been the love and caring that this community of donors and volunteers has shown the children of our community. Each child and parent receives not only toys handed to them but they also receive lots of smiles and kind words. And each volunteer receives a “thank you” and the satisfaction that they helped make their community’s children happier at this important Holiday.
What makes the event so special?
As far as we know, there is not an event that is designed like this anywhere else in the country. Every year, after reviewing our event with key volunteers and board members, we make improvements and adjustments unique to our needs and the needs of the families. We are fortunate to have the support of two major in-kind media sponsors (Florida Times Union and WJXT Channel 4) who make sure the word gets out about this annual event and in the case of WJXT, over 2,000 donated toys are collected through the WJXT and Ace Hardware toy drives. All our sponsors, including the many in-kind sponsors, as a whole community, make this event a great success. The other thing that makes this event special is the great number of people involved: Roughly 5,000 children are given toys, 3,000 parents accompany their children, 1,000 volunteers give their time, 33 event sponsors give their funds, 10 major in-kind sponsors donate their services and thousands of individual donors (both from the general public and employees from our sponsor companies) give their donated funds and toys.
What’s the schedule of the day?
Set-up week at the convention center includes the four days leading up to party day. The toys arrive from our wholesale toy company and volunteers unpack toys, set up the toys in the toy booths and decorate the entry area at the convention center. On Saturday, the volunteers arrive at 7:30 a.m. Volunteer orientation is at 8 a.m. The families arrive by school buses (donated by Durham), by car or by public transportation. Some families start lining up many hours before the event. Santa Claus and the mayor arrive at the entrance door at 9 a.m. to cut the ribbon. The families start coming into the convention center to see all the beautiful decorations and to be directed down one of three aisles. Each child is given three tickets. If one has a special stamp, that means the child won a toy in the Wheels Depots where he/she can choose a bike, scooter, wagon or tot riding toy. The toys are organized in special categories (balls, electronics, games, girls, boys, etc.), where volunteers stand in the booths and hand the child a toy for a ticket. As many as 7,000 parents and children file through the toy booth aisles in only three and a half hours.
What work goes into organizing the event?
The work is year-round and in fact, activities related to the next year start at this year’s event! We ask potential sponsors to come see the event for themselves in case they want to be sponsors next year. The fundraising happens all year-round. Around April, the collecting of toys starts with the ordering of the first 15,000 toys from our wholesale toy company source, Group Sales from Cincinnati. Later the Wheels Depot items are ordered from Walmart. The collection of donated toys starts at the beginning of December and continues up until the day before the party. Another factor is getting the word out to the families about the event. Besides our major media sponsors and local radio and newspapers, we rely on schools, the United Way and Jacksonville Housing Authority to get the word out to anyone who may need the services this event offers. We are grateful to have a city that provides the venue for this event (convention center), as well as the security that JSO, event staff and SMG provide.
What is something about the event people may not know?
For all 20 years of our existence, we have had the same Santa, Mike VonDolteren. Also, we have always held our event at the Prime Osborn Convention Center. Another amazing fact is that almost all of our founding sponsors have remained our sponsors 20 years later.
How can people get involved and help?
The best way to get involved is by becoming an event sponsor because it not only means that toys are able to be purchased with those funds, but it also means the sponsor’s employees, friends and family may volunteer at the event, if they so desire. Another way to be involved is through donating toys. The WJXT/Ace Hardware toy drives bring in thousands of great toys from the generous, concerned public. Toys may also be dropped off at the convention center during the three days before the party on Dec. 8. More information about the nonprofit organization and the event is at our website at . You can also call our hotline phone at (904) 350-1616 for information about the event.
Edited by Jon Blauvelt