The Lancaster Youth Bureau’s annual Christmas giveaway to families in need has grown into a festive tradition more than 25 years old that attracts a few hundred volunteers and gifts – from the family who donated groceries in thanks for help it received on a holiday gone by, to Hillview Elementary School’s gift of 90 shoeboxes full of games for kids.
“Our main room looks like an old-fashioned toy store,” said John Trojanowsky, director of the Lancaster Youth Bureau, which is located on Oxford Avenue.
“We’re all in it together,” he said. “That’s what’s so nice about this community.”
The town department is charged with serving some 3,000 young people a year with clothes, school supplies, performing arts, studio art classes, a finance class, tutoring, mentoring, volunteer opportunities and even a youth court that dispenses alternative sentences for teen crimes.
It adds a new dimension in December, when it becomes a hub for making holiday packages for about 175 families with about 300 children.
There are toys collected by the Lancaster Police Department. Scarves, hats and mittens knitted by ladies clubs. New books donated by William Street Elementary that were sorted and wrapped by school social workers and psychologists. Dozens of cookies baked by high school students. Christmas trees and ornaments donated by school clubs. Baskets of food, some paid for with money given by Town Hall employees.
Wednesday morning, students will come to get everything ready.
“There’s gift wrap all over the place. They line up the bags of groceries. They get the cookies all ready,” said Trojanowsky. “As the families arrive in the afternoon, each family gets a number ... It’s very exciting ... They have tears running down their faces because they’re so overjoyed.”
People grateful for the holiday help range from families in crisis, who are dealing with things like a home that burned down, a catastrophic car crash, a mother dying of cancer or a father without a job, to more chronic struggles.
The Youth Bureau is one of the agencies participating in the Western New York Holiday Partnership and the News Neediest Fund, which accepts toys and cash donations to purchase holiday meals and gifts for families.
Word of the Lancaster service has been spreading and new families from as far away as Alden have signed up.
“It’s something I never get tired of,” said Karen Schanne, Youth Bureau social worker. “It really brings so many people together.”
She recalled how volunteers once wrapped a kit with science experiments for a boy who adored science. His face lit up when he opened it. His mother later told Schanne about how he proudly showed off his projects to the family.
“It was just one of the best presents that he had,” she said. “It was just like a gift from Santa Claus.”
Schanne has also been taken by how much the holiday giving affects the volunteers.
“I’ve had students who have said it’s one of the best days of their whole high school experience. They really feel that joy and that excitement.”
One year when a family struggled to get everything home, teens volunteered to make a delivery. When they arrived at the apartment, they saw a sparsely decorated home, with little furniture.
“They really had nothing,” Schanne said.
The experience of how profoundly the students helped the family was later commemorated at the high school: The address in Depew is posted over a classroom doorway.
“It’s kind of a gentle reminder,” Schanne said. “We live in a nice community.”