Holiday Toy Drive Brings Joy to Asylum Seekers
By Ayelet Parness
Dec 22, 2023
HIAS’ legal clients and their families will be getting an extra boost of holiday cheer this season thanks to the generosity of HIAS’ volunteers, supporters, and staff.
Throughout the year, volunteers in Silver Spring, Maryland, and New York City provide vital support to HIAS’ legal clients — including asylum seekers who have recently arrived in the New York and Washington, D.C. areas — as they navigate life in a new country. This ranges from direct support, such as mentorship or assistance finding health care providers, to contributing to larger projects such as compiling resource guides. HIAS volunteers speak a combined 20 languages, so they also often offer their skills for interpretation or translation.
But for the past month, volunteers have been busy with an additional project: collecting, wrapping, and delivering holiday gifts for HIAS’ legal clients and their families. For the past five years, HIAS’ social services team has run a holiday toy drive for their clients in Silver Spring, and this year a parallel drive occurred at HIAS’ New York City office.
“We’ve heard that organizations across the country have been experiencing a lull in volunteering over the last few years,” said Caroline Wolinsky, HIAS’ volunteer program manager. “So I’m always so impressed with the incredible dedication of our volunteers. The fact that within three weeks, we had over 100 gifts worth over $5,000 total purchased for our clients is such a testament to how wonderful our volunteer network and staff are, and how ready they are to get on board.”
Over the past few weeks, dozens of HIAS volunteers and staff also volunteered their time to wrap and deliver the gifts that were purchased directly to the clients.
“It was very gratifying to be able to ‘play Santa Claus’ and deliver gifts to a recently arrived family who are just learning about American holidays and traditions,” said Bill Swersey, HIAS’ vice president of communications, who spent an evening delivering gifts to a client from Afghanistan and her two young daughters in a suburb of New York City. “They told me how grateful they were for the presents, as well as the assistance they are getting from the HIAS legal team.”
Unlike many holiday toy drives held this time of year, HIAS only collects new items that were specifically requested by clients of HIAS’ legal and social services programs. In the weeks leading up to the toy drive, HIAS attorneys, paralegals, and social services staff reach out to their clients with fliers in their own languages with information about the drive. Clients then send back links to what they and their family members want for the holidays — without limitations on which website they use or the price of the items they are requesting.
For some HIAS clients, this toy drive is their first contact with HIAS’ social services team. Wolinsky says that fulfilling these requests helps build trust with clients, paving the way for them to return to the social services team for more support.
“I think it’s really important that clients get to choose what they receive,” said Wolinsky, who has been involved in the drive for the last three years. “By focusing on what specifically would make our clients and their family happy, we’re sending the message that no matter where you are from, you deserve a bit of that holiday magic.”