It’s beginning to look a lot like a COVID Christmas, so toy and donation drives are a little bit different and a lot more socially distant, but Tucsonans can still find ample opportunity to spread cheer to the less fortunate.
Those who prefer in-kind, adopt-a-family-style donations can give new, unwrapped toys and warm clothing for 200 recently homeless families through February 1 at Old Pueblo Community Services, 4501 E. 5th St.
The local nonprofit, which utilizes a “housing first” model in its approach to eradicating homelessness, has assisted 1,800 people with attaining housing since the onset of the pandemic.
“We made a conscious decision to try to do everything we could to help the people who were homeless on the streets when the pandemic started. We were able to work with the city and county and other resources to operate new projects that helped to get people off the streets immediately,” said Tom Litwicki, CEO of Old Pueblo Community Services.
The projects included short-term housing in a local hotel, where clients received access to additional resources — health care, counseling and behavioral health services, employment and educational opportunities and more — and were transitioned into permanent apartments.
The innovative collaborations have cut through red tape to shorten transition times and make permanent housing more easily accessible to the homeless community, Litwicki said.
“A silver lining of the COVID crisis is that it forces us to reevaluate how we do business and makes us look at bureaucracy ... there is motivation to retain rules that are valuable and to compress red tape when you know people’s lives are on the line. I wish that sort of urgency existed all the time,” said Litwicki.
Michael Reddig and his wife, Daria Wing, are among those who have benefited from the collaborations; they were living on the streets when the pandemic started.
“It was terrifying. We didn’t have anywhere to go and they were kicking us out of parks, so we started a camp off the bike trail,” said Reddig, who became homeless in 2016 after the mother of his two children left him and took the kids.
“I got depressed and started using drugs and lost my drive to go to work. I lost everything and it happened so fast that I didn’t know how to recover. I spent four years lost on the streets. I didn’t have anyone to believe in me, so I didn’t believe in myself,” he said.
The couple wed in February, and the temporary housing provided by OPCS in March was a turning point for the couple. He said having a roof over their heads allowed him to focus on recovery and personal goals such as education and reunifying with his two children.
“Without them, we would still be homeless. My kids would be in foster care and my life would look different. When I first came into the program with OPCS, I didn’t think being where I am now was possible, but I am grateful that my case manager gave me the tools and resources to step up and do my thing. I have built momentum that hasn’t stopped,” Redding said.
Building momentum has been a goal for Maria Vianey Valdez-Cardenas, founder of United Hearts of Arizona.
For the past six years she has spearheaded a holiday jacket and shoe drive for children at Ochoa and Mission View Elementary schools in South Tucson.
This year, due to the need for low-contact during the pandemic, she hopes to collect at least $3,000 with which to purchase the needed items; armchair shoppers can donate online at https://www.gofundme.com/f/7th-annual-south-tucson-shoe-and-jacket-drive or by calling Valdez-Cardenas at 520-808-4330.
“Jackets and shoes seem like something simple for most people, but they make a difference in the lives of the children. Warm jackets and good shoes allow them to be comfortable and help them not to get sick and miss school,” said Valdez-Cardenas, who started the drive when she worked in community outreach for Mission View.
She said that ultimately, the purpose of the event is to remove barriers that might prevent the children from continuing their educations.
“There is a lot of need in these schools: 98% of the students are low-income. I worked with other community members to be a bridge between the schools and resources. Sometimes parents have different barriers — like language or low literacy, or perhaps they are undocumented — so the children are not getting the resources they need and we want to help with that,” said Valdez-Cardenas.
Donors who prefer to shop and drop also have options.
Donations of new, unwrapped toys or gift cards to benefit members of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson and hospitalized children at Tucson Medical Center can be dropped off daily through Friday, Dec. 18 at TMC Foundation, 5301 E. Grant Rd.
Additionally, a drive-through toy collection to benefit adults with special needs and foster children through the Easterseals Blake Foundation will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 18 at Mr. An’s Teppanyaki Steak & Seafood, 6091 N. Oracle Road.
Ultimately, in-kind donations can make the holidays for children and families who have had a very difficult year, according to Debbie Wagner, chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson.
“Our families really need us now more than ever. Like so many in the community, many parents are unemployed or have experienced lay-offs and some are staying home to care for kids doing distance learning. Depending on their family circumstances, they are all having to make tough choices right now and some have lost relatives to COVID or have relatives who are ill. This year we really want to put smiles on kids’ faces and let them know we haven’t forgotten them,” said Wagner.
Contact freelance writer Loni Nannini at email@example.com