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Pandemic spikes need for Christmas toy donations, leaving group pleading for donations

Operation Cover Chicago has received twice as many requests for toys this Christmas and hopes to give 20,000 Chicago-area children toys this year.

Kenyatta Smith (right) urges people to support Operation Cover Chicago, which provides Christmas gifts to Chicago-area children in need. The initiative has received double the requests for gifts this year.
Clare Spaulding/Sun-Times

Kenyatta Smith remembers the year he woke up on Christmas morning with no presents under the tree.

Never wanting another child to experience that, Smith started Operation Cover Chicago nearly a decade ago, an initiative that provides Chicago-area children with Christmas gifts.

This Christmas, requests for gifts have more than doubled than previous years because of unemployment and other financial hardships stemming from the pandemic. On Giving Tuesday, Smith was “pleading with the community” to donate and provide gifts for these children — most of whom live in poverty.

“Before COVID-19, being underserved, underprivileged, it was a hassle” to buy Christmas gifts, Smith said. “Now, it’s almost impossible.”

On Dec. 22, Operation Cover Chicago expects to provide gifts to more than 20,000 children ages 3 to 15, said Smith, who is also the senior pastor of Another Chance Church in Longwood Manor on the South Side. Anyone can bring their child to the church to pick out a gift on a first-come, first-served basis.

Smith is determined to make sure no child leaves empty handed. As of Tuesday afternoon, Operation Cover Chicago had enough resources to fulfill about 13,000 of the requests, leaving an additional 7,000 children still unaccounted for, the group said.

Without additional donations, the organization cannot cover that gap alone, Smith said. He hopes people will see the need and be stirred to support the group.

Earlier Tuesday, Operation Cover Chicago celebrated progress on its funding goal as Smith announced on the church’s Facebook page that Union Pacific Railroad made a $4,000 donation.

A $25 donation typically supports one child receiving a gift. People can donate to the Operation Cover Chicago GoFundMe or mail a check to Another Chance Church, at 9550 S. Harvard Ave, Chicago IL 60628. The initiative is also collecting toy donations through Dec. 20, and someone is at the church from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. most days to accept donations.

Cook County Commissioner Stanley Moore has seen suffering “all over” the 4th district, especially during the pandemic. Budgetary constraints have left communities without YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs and other resources to support children, Moore said.

But fighting crime starts with initiatives like Smith’s, Moore said, which show children they are loved.

“This is not just about giving a toy to a child,” Moore said. “This is about their mental health, this is about their well-being. This is about letting them know that somebody cares about them.”