No matter how big or small, a toy can bring joy to a child’s face in perilous times. Such is the motivation behind the annual toy drive in Harlem’s New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments all this week as Christmas season rounds the bend.

Johanna Pittman has lived at her apartment building in East Harlem since May 2019. Her eight kids came barreling down the stairs to get presents. Their ages range from a bundled up baby girl to a tall 14-year-old boy. They eagerly ripped into the gifts they received from team members in the hallway lobby, each one a pre-wrapped surprise. Gifts included a music speaker, a scooter, games and books.

“I love this program. We went last year and they loved it and I said we were doing it again this year. I was excited about it, they look forward to everything because they always get amazing or surprising stuff,” said Pittman as she smiled at the children. “It feels as though it’s one big community and they care about the people in the building.”

So far 700 toys have been given out to about 3,000 families and kids in 40 buildings across 16 housing developments in Harlem, Washington Heights and Upper Manhattan. The NYCHA tenants at these developments usually are in affordable housing, paying about 30% of their income toward rent.

The toy drive is organized by the PACT Renaissance Collaborative (PRC) team, a group that repairs NYCHA developments in Manhattan, and the Community League of the Heights (CLOTH). The Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) provides the wrapped gifts that get distributed to children as well as invests in public housing along with other core entities.

“NYCHA’s housing plays a critical role in the stability of the communities where it’s located and in the livelihood of tens of thousands of our most vulnerable New Yorkers. The pandemic has only amplified its importance and the need to preserve this key resource of deeply affordable housing,” said President & CEO of CPC Rafael E. Cestero in a statement. “We’re proud to invest in New York City at this pivotal moment, and to partner with NYCHA and the other members of PRC on an initiative that will improve the quality of life of the nearly 3,000 people who call these developments home.”

Bianca Lopez, a resident coordinator with CLOTH and social services associate with PRC, said that she enjoys giving back and being a part of the solution.

“I love this time of year. We deal with a lot of underprivileged, under represented tenants. A lot of tenants say they are not able to afford gifts this year and this is the only gift that their kid will get,” said Lopez. “So that feeling is what we do it for, to bring some type of holiday cheer to everyone.”

Lopez works closely with the residents, estimating that she has gotten to know at least a thousand people personally while the PRC team undertakes renovations to each person’s apartment. Renovations and repairs include new kitchens, bathroom flooring and fixtures, windows and apartment doors, common areas; upgrades to long complained about elevators, heating and building doors; and lastly, landscaping and roofs across each development.

Even though the PRC team is contractually obligated to renovate the NYCHA apartments, there are instances where distrust, fear, disbelief or mental health issues slows down the process. Lopez and others from CLOTH assist with people who have a difficult time during construction and try to build connections with families. Some families also have the option of staying in hospitality suites or in their apartments with the construction teams working in phases to fix everything up and not fully displace them.

Vice President at Monadnock Development Amy Stokes, who leads the on-the-ground PRC team, confirmed that renovations for the total 1,716 units are about 85% complete. The apartment renovations should be completed by February 2023 with repairs on the interior of the buildings, like elevators and door locks, scheduled to be completed by fall of 2023.

Stokes said that the team has given out turkeys around Thanksgiving and gift cards before and really wanted to make the toy drive an annual tradition, especially since the buildings have an abundance of children. 

“The whole point of PRC and us doing this project is to get outside, improve living situations of all the residents through good property management, through fully rehabbed buildings,” said Stokes. “People should be excited about living in their buildings, not worrying about when is my work order is going to be done.”

Stokes said while chronic underfunding is still a problem, what matters is restoring pride for people in their homes and showing appreciation for residents during the holidays.

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting:

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