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Buffalo family's Christmas traditions wrapped up in toy, food giveaway

Nate Johns climbed to the top of the bleachers, reached into a cardboard box and pulled out another wrapped Christmas gift. This one was for a little boy, maybe 3 or 4 years old.

Nate, 13, has blond hair, a smattering of freckles and an easy smile. He handed over the present and wished the little boy a Merry Christmas.

It's Nate's favorite part of Boxes of Love, the annual holiday campaign to give away food and toys to thousands of needy families.

"You get to experience giving presents to a kid who wouldn't normally get a present," he said.

Boxes of Love is in its 19th year of gift and toy distributions. It was started by Nate's father, the Rev. Eric Johns, pastor of the Buffalo Dream Center.  And for the Johns family, it's become as much a Christmas tradition as decorating a tree or baking cut-out cookies. Johns' wife, Michelle, and their five children again were among the 100 or so volunteers handing out gifts and groceries Saturday afternoon in the Belle Center on the West Side.

Volunteers Stash Vazquez, left, and Katie Bergstrom hand out bags of groceries during the delivery of the Boxes of Love at the Belle Center in Buffalo on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. The Rev. Eric Johns, pastor at the Buffalo Dream Center, organized the Christmas campaign with a goal of giving food and toys to 3,000 families. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

"Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without doing this," said Mikayla Johns, 18. She and her siblings have been involved in the annual effort ever since they can remember.

"I think they would all tell you they couldn't imagine Christmas any other way," said Eric Johns.

Many of the people receiving gifts and food are refugees and immigrants who speak little English. Mikayla Johns knows some Spanish, so she was helping Spanish speakers navigate the stations and tables inside the Belle Center gymnasium.

Next year, she's planning to do a Spanish immersion program in Guatemala for six months – in time to be back in Buffalo for next year's Boxes of Love effort. She said she wouldn't miss it.

"Even though it's a lot of work, it's also brought our family closer together," she said. "As soon as it ends, I can't wait for next year to start again."

An estimated 400 families lined up outside the center for a holiday boost that included the children's gifts; hats and scarves for adults; and a choice of turkey, lamb or chicken, as well as staples such as oatmeal, cereal and cooking oil.

The Belle Center distribution usually is one of largest of the 17 different Boxes of Love giveaways scheduled at various locations this month.

Johns said about 80 area churches and businesses assisted with the toy and food gathering effort. For the first time, Boxes of Love this year includes a new and used clothing giveaway at some of its distribution locations.

Every year since 1998, Johns has spent five nights at Thanksgiving time living "homeless" on the streets of Buffalo in an effort to call attention to the plight of the homeless and impoverished and to raise donations for Boxes of Love.

Boxes of Love concludes on Christmas Eve with a free lasagna dinner for homeless people and people in need. And the Johns family will be there, too.

Guests at the Boxes of Love delivery in Buffalo pick out warm knitted items from a table of donations at the Belle Center on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. The campaign to help needy families is still seeking donations of new, unwrapped toys. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

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