By Victoria Espinoza

For a few families struggling to make ends meet this Christmas, local organizations got together to ensure there would be presents under the tree.

United Way of Long Island, a nonprofit based in Deer Park, and Make it Count Foundation, a nonprofit based in West Islip, worked together to donate funds so that children and their families were able to search through Target in Commack and choose any gifts they wanted for Christmas this year. They were also given holiday treats as they shopped. Kids ran through the aisles of Target Dec. 14, browsing the Barbie dolls, Nerf guns, and other toys they could take home to make the holiday special.

“Helping children in need is priceless,” Jon Reese, president of the Make It Count Foundation said in an email. “I feel it is not only our responsibility, it is an honor. Especially this time of year, when we celebrate life and hope.”

Reese said Make It Count has worked with United Way of Long Island in the past on home renovations, health and community programs, and backpacks filled with school supplies.

A young boy picks out Christmas gifts at Target in Commack Dec. 14. Photo from Mallory Kerley

“We feel that when the Make It Count Foundation and the United Way of Long Island partner, we are able to leverage each other’s resources and make a greater impact,” he said.

According to Theresa Regnante, president and CEO of United Way of Long Island, this is the second year the two nonprofits have joined together to organize the event.

“We wanted these kids to be able to celebrate the holidays, and have the joy of opening gifts that they wanted,” she said in an email. “Jon Reese has been a fantastic partner in other areas of our mission, and coming together to help kids during the holiday season was a perfect fit. We have the connections to the partner agencies who work with families across Long Island, and they had the funds to donate to help them afford the gifts. It was an easy to decision to make to put this event together.”

Families had to be nominated to partake in the event, and Regnante said other local nonprofits helped in the selection process.

“We connected with Long Island Head Start, United Veterans Beacon House, and Family Service League, who are all partner agencies of ours, and asked them to nominate families who could use some extra holiday cheer to take part in the shopping spree, as well as families who are part of our VetsBuild and YouthBuild programs,” she said. “Target generously let us utilize their break room space and provided treats to the children before giving them a tour of the toy department. It was a fabulous effort all around.”

Regnante shared what makes the event special to her.

A young girl picks out Christmas gifts at Target in Commack Dec. 14. Photo from Mallory Kerley

“The best part of an event like this is seeing the smiles on the children’s faces as they pick up that toy they’ve been asking for for months, and knowing that they can take it home that night,” she said. “You have to remember, most of these children have only the basic necessities and rarely do they have the opportunity to get things that bring them true joy. Their families are working hard to give them the best life possible, and this event allows those parents and guardians to brighten the holiday season just a bit more. The holiday season is supposed to be filled with happiness, but it isn’t that way for those who are struggling.”

She said she watched a mother and her son go through the check-out line, and as they were walking out the door, he yelled out, “I feel like Christmas is here early!” as if he couldn’t believe he was actually allowed to leave the store with his new toys.

“Watching this little boy literally skip out the door warmed my heart,” she said.