Snellville nonprofit opens shop for needy parents to buy toys

SNELLVILLE -- The afternoon's rush was primarily over, but the signs of Christmas giving remained evident into the evening: several tables still stacked with toys and clothes, another filled with turkeys, broth, potatoes and holiday pies.

The Snellville nonprofit Place of Seven Springs opened up the doors of its simply titled "Christmas Project" on Friday, welcoming needy families into their makeshift winter wonderland.

For years, the organization, founded by Debbie Dowdin, has given Christmas toys to the children of struggling families, delivering them to their doorsteps themselves.

This year, however, Dowdin decided it was time for a change.

Between Friday's event and its continuation Saturday, the parents of about 140 local children will have dropped by Place of Seven Springs to shop for toys donated from "everywhere," Dowdin said, buying their children's gifts for prices no higher than $2.

"Last year it sort of dawned on me that, you know what, we're bypassing the parents," Dowdin said. "These children should know these gifts are coming from a parent and not from a stranger. I think it's healthier for the family as a whole."

The gifts set up across many tables Friday were distributed by sex and age, making the shopping experience more convenient for parents. Once they selected three gifts per child -- two that were paid for, another free because it came from Toys for Tots -- parents were ushered to a back room where volunteers joined in giftwrapping the presents.

On their way out, the families were given the makings of a full Christmas meal and a loaf of bread symbolizing "the reason for the season."

"I see the smiles on their faces," volunteer Scott Zanardo said, "and it's just really great."

Toy donations were made to the program by Gwinnett County schools' facilities and operations department, as well as several different church and neighborhood groups, Dowdin said. All told, about 500 toys were contributed and roughly 30 volunteers will spend their time helping out those less fortunate this weekend.

While not many shoppers dropped by as things were winding down Friday, Dowdin said the shop was "packed" earlier in the day. They expect more of the same today.

"There's a healthy sense of pride in being able to provide for your child," Dowdin said. "And they love it."