Piles of puzzles, stuffed animals, mittens, dolls, trains and other toys transformed the conference room at the county Department of Social Services into a makeshift Santa's toy shop Christmas Eve.

Joy Rich, director of Social Services' Neighbors in Need program, surveyedthe array of toys that remained and shook her Santa hat-covered head.


"We've collected more than 5,000 toys, all of them new. This is one of the best years we've ever had in donations. We've never experienced such generosity. With the recession, I didn't think we'd get very much this year."

Toys and food collected are given each year to families who qualify for public assistance, said Rich.


During the last few days before Christmas, social services' clients roamed through the 3-foot-high piles of toys.

Frequently they left in tears.

"I didn't know what to expect. I cried. I was just blown away at this big huge room full of clothes, toys, games and stuffed animals," said Diane, whose husband, lost his job two weeks before Christmas.

The couple had no money to buy Christmas presents for her three teen-age children, who came to live with them in Abingdon this summer. Diane said she found out about the Neighbors in Need program when she finally went to the Department of Social Services this month to get help paying the family's utility bills.

"I don't think the people who donated all those gifts and all that food will ever understand the impact it had on our lives," said Diane. "It was a gift. God IS faithful. I will never be the same again, and I know my husband won't be the same either."

The need for help was greater this year, than in the past, said Rich.

As of the morning of Dec. 24, the Neighbors in Need program had provided toys and food to more than 2,000 familieswith Christmas this year, said Rich.

On Dec. 23 alone, 41 families -- all filing emergency applications for help that day -- visited the unusual toy shop.


"These are people like you and me," said Rich. "They've worked hard all their lives and hit a situation they can'tcontrol, like unemployment. It's more difficult for them to ask for help, and it's most difficult for them to receive. We try to make it as comfortable and smooth as we can."

This year, Rich tried to schedule deliveries so that parents who came for toys and food ChristmasEve would still have plenty of new items to choose from.

"People are giving really nice things this year. I've never had so many new toys left at Christmas Eve before," said Rich.

But the needs don't come to an end with the passage of Christmas.

"Evictions, gas and electric cutoff notices -- this doesn't stop with Christmas," said Rich.

"Neighbors in Need is a yearlong program, and we're strictly run on donations. If I have any toys left over after Christmas, I'll save them to give out later. People being evicted lose everything. A lot of what is set on the street is stolen."