On an unseasonably warm, sunny day in December, Balvina Mares joined a line of people wrapped around the block at our Sheridan Market. Like many others, she was visiting a food pantry for the first time. However, this week was special — Nourishing Hope’s annual toy drive was back in full swing.

A treasured community holiday tradition, the initiative is made possible through a partnership with the Vincent Babiarz Toy Drive. In 1998, a group of neighbors came together to ensure that along with a delicious holiday meal, kids had presents to open on Christmas morning. When the Babiarz family lost their son, Vincent, in 2010 their neighbors rededicated their efforts and the toy drive in his memory.

Balvina Mares and her son, Luis, waiting in line at our Sheridan Market.

Mares and her 5-year-old son, Luis planned to spend their holidays at the home of a family member. Another child about Luis’ age would also be there. Mares, who is unemployed, hoped to make Christmas as special as she could during a difficult time for the family.

Luis takes a closer look at a Transformers toy.

Thanks to Nourishing Hope’s tireless volunteers, distributions are serving more than three times more families with children compared to pre-pandemic times. Families who visited the Pantry before the holidays could receive a full month’s supply of groceries and also holiday gifts for their children. The festive toy room was well-stocked with board games, dolls, crafts, books and more — all brand new toys donated by kind supporters. Children like Luis delighted in selecting which toy to take home.

Some — like Riley, who is 2 — were too young to select their own toys, but seem content nonetheless. Her mother, Ryan Randazzo, who has two other children to shop for as well, slowly pushed the wide-eyed Riley in her stroller through the toy room.

Toys for younger children, like this “pretend play food” tray, were popular at this year’s toy drive.

For many, the joy and excitement was tempered by the reality of their day-to-day struggles. Ricardo Castaneda, shopping for seven children, lost his delivery job a month and a half ago as the company downsized.

“The kids love turkey day, they love the holidays,” said Castaneda. “It’s been hard, but this is all for them.”

Ricardo Castaneda shops for his family in our Sheridan Market’s toy room.

Meanwhile, Brenda Tolliver, shopping for her four grandchildren, waved as she placed a board game, a plastic stroller for a baby doll, and a set of toy dinosaurs into her cart. 

“I’m so happy I came here!” she said.

Brenda Tolliver brought a cart to help transport her holiday toy haul.

“The kids love turkey day, they love the holidays. It’s been hard, but this is all for them.”

This year, hundreds of children throughout Chicago like Riley and Luis will unwrap brand new toys on Christmas morning thanks to the generosity of those who contributed to Nourishing Hope’s annual toy drive.