A Denver toy giveaway helps westside families deal with a cold economy this winter

Giving kids a “normal” Christmas carries a lot of weight this year.

Sam Candi Towne and her kids, Lyla (right to left), Dakota and Forest, just received wrapped Christmas presents from Victory Outreach Church in Athmar Park. Dec. 19, 2020.

Sam Candi Towne and her kids, Lyla (right to left), Dakota and Forest, just received wrapped Christmas presents from Victory Outreach Church in Athmar Park. Dec. 19, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
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A few years ago, Sam Candi Towne found herself in a tough spot. She only had enough cash to buy one gift for each of her three kids at a local dollar store. She felt like she’d let them down, and it broke her heart.

“I felt bad because I couldn’t afford Christmas presents. I had to pay my rent,” she said. “I vowed that I would never let that happen again.”

But this year, she faced a harder situation. She lost her job at a veterinary clinic after things began to shut down. Then a long-abusive relationship boiled over as the summer dragged on. One night in early August, Towne said, her former partner kicked her and her young children out of the house. She’s been bouncing between motel rooms and less stable living quarters ever since.

Making sure her children can eat is paramount, but giving them a “normal” holiday season is also really important to her. It’s why she was extremely grateful to learn the Victory Outreach Church of Denver, in Athmar Park, was giving away wrapped presents over the weekend.

“It’s a big help. It’s a big difference. Especially for kids who don’t know what’s going on. Who can’t help that they’re being homeless or have no food,” she said, letting out an emotional sigh. “That makes me so sad. I’m just trying to pass time, the best way I can, without them knowing that we were homeless.”

Victory Outreach Church's annual toy giveaway in Athmar Park. Dec. 19, 2020.

Victory Outreach Church's annual toy giveaway in Athmar Park. Dec. 19, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Andrew, 12, hands out free wrapped gifts during Victory Outreach Church's annual toy giveaway in Athmar Park. Dec. 19, 2020.

Andrew (12) hands out free, wrapped gifts during Victory Outreach Church's annual toy giveaway in Athmar Park. Dec. 19, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Victory Outreach distributes toys every year, but Senior Pastor Tom Vasquez reckons the demand might be higher in 2020. He thought back to November, when the church handed out turkeys.

“We were out in about an hour,” he said. “So there’s a great need. A big need.”

His congregation is geared toward this kind of community support.

“That’s the whole thrust of our ministries,” Vasquez said.

Year-round, they run free residential clinics to help people kick drug addictions. The toy drive, which was made possible with support from Toys For Tots, is a way for Vasquez to remind his neighbors that there’s support here whenever it’s needed.

This pandemic recession has sliced economies like Denver’s in unexpected ways. Some small businesses are booming as many others face closure. There’s been some recovery since everything slammed to a halt last spring, but economists say the rebound is “k-shaped.” People who can work from home are seeing relief as lower-wage workers, who often rely on face-to-face interactions, are still dealing with decline.

Victory Outreach Church's annual toy giveaway in Athmar Park. Dec. 19, 2020.

Victory Outreach Church's annual toy giveaway in Athmar Park. Dec. 19, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Jessica Helper and her kids, Antonio and Mikiyela, just picked up free, wrapped gifts at Victory Outreach Church's annual toy giveaway in Athmar Park. Dec. 19, 2020.

Jessica Helper and her kids, Antonio and Mikiyela, just picked up free, wrapped gifts at Victory Outreach Church's annual toy giveaway in Athmar Park. Dec. 19, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Jessica Helper, a single mother who drove through the toy line with her five kids, said she’s basically given up on a steady job for now. It’s hard to find managers who are hiring, and there are other pressures on her.

“It’s really hard to find daycare, and so that’s why I’m a stay-at-home parent now,” she said. “It’s probably been one of my hardest years. Yes, it has.”

Like Towne, she was glad the church gave her an opportunity to provide her children some Christmas cheer.

“To be able to have a holiday is a big blessing, because some of us can’t make that possible for our own children at the moment,” she said.

Marvin Hawkins has lived around Athmar Park for all of his 67 years. His son, a pipe-fitter, lost both his job and his housing as a result of the recession. He moved in with Hawkins a few days ago.

“He told me the other day that he didn’t have nothing for his kids,” he said. “I saw this and I said, ‘This is cool. I can give this to him to give to his kids.'”

He said he’s never seen a year like this on the west side. But it’s not all been bad news. While times have been tough, people have stepped up to help like never before.

“They’re struggling, but there’s a lot of help in the neighborhood.” he said. “Not like we didn’t help each other before, but it’s more help. It’s extra. It’s the extra mile, and that’s what the neighborhood is doing.”

Marvin Hawkins just picked up free, wrapped Christmas gifts for his grandkids at Victory Outreach Church's annual toy giveaway in Athmar Park. Dec. 19, 2020.

Marvin Hawkins just picked up free, wrapped Christmas gifts for his grandkids at Victory Outreach Church's annual toy giveaway in Athmar Park. Dec. 19, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Kids frolic during Victory Outreach Church's annual toy giveaway in Athmar Park. Dec. 19, 2020.

Kids frolic during Victory Outreach Church's annual toy giveaway in Athmar Park. Dec. 19, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

After she received her gifts from Victory’s congregation, Towne left to prepare to move into her new apartment. For months, she said, she hounded the Denver Housing Authority for help.

“I just wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I can’t. I have three kids, two babies, and it’s hard,” she said. “We’re still at the edge where we are. … I still have to figure out rent. But as long as we have a roof over our heads, I know somehow it will work.”

Tough of a year as it’s been, her children will have a roof over their heads when they open their gifts on Christmas morning.

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