The spirit of Christmas flowed through the Belle Center on the West Side on Saturday.
It started on the sidewalk at Maryland Street and Busti Avenue, where people of all different ages, races and languages lined up to walk through the front door. It continued through the gymnasium and out the back door, as low-income residents picked up wrapped toys and bags of food, including their choice of a chicken, turkey or ham. And it moved down the street on a bright, chilly December afternoon, as smiling volunteers sang Christmas carols and offered to help the visitors carry some of those items to their homes.
The grateful looks on the recipients’ faces said a lot.
“I think it’s very special,” said Gloria Farmel, who was pushing home a cart with food sacks. “It was well organized. They went in real quick. It was not overcrowded, they have an excellent system and a lot of volunteers out here to help, and I appreciated it.”
The Christmas campaign called “Boxes of Love” aims to reach more than 3,000 families in need during the holiday season. Each year, the Rev. Eric Johns, pastor of the Buffalo Dream Center, draws attention to the campaign when he lives on the streets with the homeless during Thanksgiving week.
The Belle Center is among 17 distribution sites around the region for the campaign, but this one is especially meaningful to Johns, because of the neighborhood’s poverty. He expected 400 families would benefit from Saturday’s giveaway.
“He’s good, he’s good,” Dunya Bosch said of Johns, as she walked home with her son, Yuset Bandomo, and a present that Yuset had resisted opening.
On what retail experts predicted would be the busiest shopping day of the year, the size of the turnout at the Belle Center was a poignant reminder of the struggles many area residents face just to get by.
Johns said he is heartened by the support the Boxes of Love program attracts. Of the 17 distribution sites, the Dream Center runs seven – including the one at the Belle Center – while partner churches handle the other 10.
About 1,000 volunteers pitch across all 17 sites, including wrapping gifts, packing food and staffing giveaways. Johns reflected on how the campaign began modestly 16 years ago, when he and his wife, Michelle, delivered toys and food to five families. “It’s grown from there to this.”
Some recipients at a recent distribution were refugees who had been in the United States for less than a week, he said. “Being able to help people who you know are really struggling and really in need is very rewarding.”
The Boxes of Love campaign also touches families like the Augustines of Grand Island. Priya and Kevin Augustine volunteered at the toy giveaway table with their four children, Taylor, Tori, Trevor and Timothy. It was the their fourth time helping out, after learning about the program through their church.
Volunteering for the program is about serving God, Priya Augustine said.
“Every year, this is one of the things we like to do as a family,” she said. “There’s all kinds of things that you think are about Christmas, but there’s such a need, there are so many people to reach out and help. If we open our eyes, we see there’s great need.”