There is nothing like watching a child open up a new toy on Christmas morning, and a special pop-up shop equips parents to put smiles on their kids’ faces.
It is run by The Department of Children and Families, and 37 families with open DCF cases were invited to stop in.
No matter what is on the list, it’s probably at The Olive Branch Toy and Gift Shop, open in Glastonbury for the first time this year.
"These are actual amazing things that I wouldn't have been able to get otherwise,” parent-shopper Ashley May-Williams said.
Well over 1,000 toys were donated and collected to the shop, and parents can wrap them and give them to their children for free.
“I have four kids, and Christmas is expensive. I just couldn't do it alone,” May-Williams said.
May-Williams struggled to care for her kids after being in several car accidents left her battling agoraphobia, a phobia that results in an extreme fear of leaving home.
“I asked for help in the hospital,” she said. “I had gotten really sick and I just remember looking at these nurses and knowing I couldn't live the way that we were living anymore.”
That is when DCF stepped in, connecting May-Williams to telehealth and therapy. Today, the mom who used to never leave home did just that, driving more than an hour from Bethel to the toy shop.
“Being able to get in the car and get groceries for my kids when they need it is something I didn't think I could do,” May-Williams said. “And here I am, and I get to do Christmas shopping. And I get to know that when my kids wake up on Christmas morning, it's because of the hard work that we all put in.”
Stories like hers are why volunteers stepped up to make the pop-up possible.
“We've been collecting toys since like mid-summer,” Juan Garcia said, who donated several toys alongside his wife.
"We did have a lot of family members pitch in too, so we ended up accumulating about like 130 toys,” Melanie Garcia said.
Organizer Jacqueline Ford says the gift shop illuminates the spirit of DCF’s mission, which is keeping families together.
“They can shop and they can see what's available and what their children would like,” Ford said. “Then they have an opportunity to gift wrap the toys as well, and then leave the store with dignity as if they've had a hand in creating that joy on Christmas morning.”
For parent shoppers, it means a memorable experience.
May-Williams says for her, working with DCF is life-changing this season.
"It was a very scary process. I didn't want to lose my kids,” she said. “But there was never that threat of losing my kids. It was, you know, let's make you better for your kids."
DCF hopes to expand the program to run statewide next year.