Giveaway yields toys to 1,001 children

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Bishop Robert Muench, also known for the day as Baton Rouge's St. Nick, hands Angel Estrella, 5, a bag of Christmas presents while the boy's mother Iveth Estrella, and volunteer Lisa Reid enjoy the moment in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's dining room Saturday.
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Bishop Robert Muench, also known for the day as Baton Rouge's St. Nick, hands Angel Estrella, 5, a bag of Christmas presents while the boy's mother Iveth Estrella, and volunteer Lisa Reid enjoy the moment in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's dining room Saturday.

St. Vincent de Paul plays Santa to needy

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul distributed a record number of Christmas gifts Saturday at the Catholic charity’s 17th annual Christmas toy giveaway for needy children in Baton Rouge.

In all, St. Vincent de Paul workers tallied 1,001 children who received gifts, said Michael Acaldo, chief executive officer of the charity’s Baton Rouge chapter.

St. Vincent de Paul gave toys to a few hundred kids at its first toy distribution 17 years ago, Acaldo said.

Each child on Saturday received a bag with two to three gifts inside. All told, about 2,000 to 3,000 gifts were handed out.

“It was just an awesome day today,” Acaldo said. “We had a lot of kids today who went home happy.”

Volunteer workers handed out gifts for well more than two hours, Acaldo said.

A long line of people at St. Vincent de Paul’s downtown headquarters extended all the way down St. Vincent de Paul Boulevard to Convention Street. Cars were parked all up and down the roads behind the building.

Inside the building, a volunteer at the front of the line asked each child’s age, then shouted the age and sex of the child across the room to other volunteers who grabbed the appropriate gift bags.

After the children received their gifts, they posed for photos with Bishop Robert Muench of the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge. Muench acted as Santa Claus, wearing a red Santa hat to top off his clerical attire.

“Most of these children will not have a Christmas without this,” Acaldo said. “We’re just trying to make sure that all of these kids have a wonderful and Merry Christmas.”

Katrice Watson’s four children and two nieces bounced up and down with excitement after receiving Christmas gifts from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

“See how happy she is.” Watson said as one of her nieces cheered about her toys.

“I’m very thankful. This is great,” Watson said. “This is a big help. It’s a very big help.”

Robert and Christine Brown brought all of their young children with them Saturday to St. Vincent de Paul: a 6-year-old boy, 5-year-old girl, 4-year-old girl and 4-month-old boy.

Robert Brown said his family has lived in Akron, Ohio, ever since relocating from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The family has been visiting Louisiana for the last three weeks for the holidays and stopped by St. Vincent de Paul for some Christmas help, Robert Brown said.

“We’re just so happy just to have some gifts,” he said. “We had to leave everything behind but the clothes (after Katrina).”

About half of the gifts St. Vincent de Paul handed out came from community donations, Acaldo said.

The other half, Acaldo said, came from St. Vincent de Paul’s partnership with the Needy of Greater Baton Rouge, a nonprofit Christian charitable organization that serves Ascension, East and West Baton Rouge, Iberville, and Livingston parishes.

The Needy of Greater Baton Rouge operated a program called the “St. Nicholas Challenge” to collect gifts for the event, Acaldo said. For every gift collected, the Needy of Greater Baton Rouge matched it with another gift.

“It’s just wonderful to have that kind of support in our community,” Acaldo said. “It’s very uplifting.”

Tim Arceneaux, president of the Needy of Greater Baton Rouge, said the toy giveaway is an “awesome experience.”

“It’s probably one of the most important times of the year, just to know that we’re a part of putting a smile on their faces and on Christmas Day,” Arceneaux said.

Volunteers helped wrap the thousands of gifts before Saturday’s event, Acaldo said.

Volunteering at the annual toy giveaway has become a holiday tradition for Don Broussard and his family.

Broussard, 78, said he has offered his services at the event every year of its existence.

His children also are in on the act. On Saturday, two of his sons and a daughter-in-law were there, along with two granddaughters — one of whom brought her boyfriend.

“We’ve been blessed in this city, in Baton Rouge,” Broussard said. “This is a way to give back.”