This Unique Toy Drive Makes Donating Gifts Ridiculously Easy and Extra Special

The Children’s Action Network lets you buy gifts that foster children actually want

The holiday season generally inspires us to think charitably, but it can be difficult to decide how to allocate our time, and so often we get too busy to do anything special at all. The Los Angeles-based Children’s Action Network (CAN) has not only found the ideal solution, but they’ve created a wonderfully unique gift drive that is as meaningful as it is easy. SantaCAN, now in its sixth year, allows approximately 1,000 children in foster care in Los Angeles County to create a wish registry, similar to the bridal or baby shower kind, where interested shoppers can buy a desired gift for a specific child, and it takes less than five minutes.

“There was a youth that had aged out of foster care and he was talking about how ever since being in foster care, he hated Christmas because he always got pencils and socks,” says Jennifer Perry, CAN’s executive director, who has been with the organization for more than 20 years. “We had one of those moments where we thought, you know what, there’s a way we can change that.”

If you go to the SantaCAN registry right now, you’ll see that Audrey, 7, wants a Baby Alive Make Me Better Doll ($30) while Alfonso, 14, is hoping for a Fender FA-100 Acoustic Guitar ($120). The gifts range in price, but most are under $150, so as to make it accessible and affordable to donors of different means. The process is intuitive—it’s as simple as purchasing a gift from retailers like Amazon or Target—and all you have to do is make sure to send the gifts to the SantaCAN address (below) and, afterwards, return to to record the wish as having been fulfilled:

Children’s Action Network/ Santacan
11849 West Olympic Boulevard Suite 101
Los Angeles, CA 90064

Perry chatted with us via phone to talk about the organization, its overall mission, and exactly how many boxes are in her office right now.

Why is this gift drive different than most toy drives?
What differentiates us is the specificity. We all know what it’s like when you’re little to want that thing, whether it’s a basketball or a doll or a Tonka truck. These kids have so few things to call their own, and frequently have very few things at all, so it was really important to us that, where everything else is so uncertain, we could make a little difference. And for people who buy gifts with their children, it’s making them understand that a kid in foster care is just like them—the same dreams, the same needs, the same aspirations. That’s the added benefit.

What do you find the children typically ask for?
My particular favorite is the 13-year-old boys that are starting to ask for aftershave because they’re finally starting to think about what they might smell like. The more heartbreaking thing is these older kids who just want their own set of sheets.

How are the gifts collected and distributed?
By us! If you saw our office right now, you would understand. It’s like an Amazon warehouse. We’re on extremely good terms with our FedEx and UPS deliverymen. We work with numerous foster care agencies across the county, so we go to them for the wishes, it all comes here, and then we distribute back to them. We might be able to eliminate the middle person eventually but we like to know that a wish was granted.

Do you get donations?
Sometimes, but we don’t ask, because we don’t know what the requests are going to be, because we’re so specific. If we ask Hasbro for 40 so-and-sos, we might only get five requests. That’s why we do it this way, and it does make it a little more complicated but I think people really enjoy the act of going on there and seeing the wishes. And there’s a number of people who do it for Hanukkah, in spite of the name. We have donors from Israel and Iceland and all over.

Can people see pictures of the children?
No, and it frustrates people all the time. The courts preserve confidentiality and the only way you can show an image of a child is if you are recruiting for an adoptive home for them. Also, the first goal of foster care is always to reunify the youth with their biological parents, so you may not want their image out there as being in foster care.

So is this the sixth year of SantaCAN?
Yes, in this iteration. Our goal is to do at least 1,000 gifts, but there are more than 27,000 youths in foster care in L.A. County, so wouldn’t that be lovely in a perfect world?

What’s the broader mission of the Children’s Action Network?
To raise awareness of youth in foster care, and help find them permanence. We have a number of different projects spinning out from that core. SantaCAN is one of those. We also have a big project called FosterMore, which is an awareness campaign to chip away at the stigmas around youth and care. Foster children are like every other child: They’re full of potential, and it’s contingent on us to help them realize their potential. One of the statistics that really resonates with people is 70% of youths in foster care want to pursue higher education and only 3-to-4% do. That’s a gap we can all help close.

Why aren’t more people doing gift and other donation-driven collections this way?
I’m not sure that they’re not, but to the best of my knowledge collections tend to be broader. It’s probably a combination of people haven’t thought of it, or they’re not crazy enough to undertake it this way. There’s a lot of logistics, and it’s time-consuming, but it’s so pleasurable.

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