ATLANTIC CITY - The 22d annual toy drive by the local nonprofit Just 4 Kids came Saturday in a holiday season like no other for Atlantic City - holiday cheer for some of the children whose families have suffered from unprecedented casino layoffs.
Among the 200 families treated at St. Michael's Church was that of Flor Dalia Castro, 41, of Atlantic City, who said she has one wish this Christmas: a job. She lost her cleaning job of two years at Revel when the casino closed four months ago.
Unemployed since, she has five children, from 3 to 13 years old, and a husband with kidney cancer to support.
"I had no money for toys for Christmas," said Castro in Spanish. She smiled as one of her children, Alayno Solano, 8, showed off her new stuffed animal.
"It's very hard right now."
Castro makes some money by cooking Mexican food from her home and selling it. Her father, Bertoldo Mario Castro, a chef in a local restaurant, is helping the family make ends meet.
The area is reeling from the shutdowns of four casinos - Atlantic Club, Revel, Showboat, and Trump Plaza - and the loss of 8,000 jobs. Fewer than a fourth have been hired by the remaining eight casinos.
A fifth casino - Trump Taj Mahal - narrowly escaped closing Saturday when billionaire Carl Icahn pumped an additional $20 million to keep it open into the new year.
But that was not enough to relieve the stress for Rachel Vezeriannis' family. Her mother, Maria, 61, works at the Taj Mahal as a beverage server in the casino's buffet.
Maria Vezeriannis' hours were drastically cut at the casino. When the Taj disclosed it was on the brink of closing three months ago, Rachel said her mother went from working a full-time, 40-hour workweek to whenever she is needed. Maria's husband is ill; the couple live with Rachel, a single mother who works as a VIP customer specialist at the Borgata. Rachel is the family's main source of income.
"My mother's very stressed right now," said Rachel Vezeriannis, who sat with her daughter, Maria, 8, as they unwrapped a Barbie doll. "She doesn't know if [the Taj] will open or close. She feels helpless."
She added: "We're just kind of holding on - white-knuckling it this year. We're hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst."
Such uncertainty has reverberated throughout the ailing city, and the toy giveaway was to provide some relief - at least for a day.
"For many kids, this is their Christmas. This is it," said Just 4 Kids president Kay Seelig as she picked out gifts based on the children's ages.
About 1,000 toys, including stuffed animals, soccer and basketballs, Transformers, Barbie dolls, and toy trucks and cars were handed out.
The event leaders selected 20 families each from 10 elementary and middle schools in the city, many with multiple children.
Seelig, 72, a grandmother of six who lives in Galloway Township and migrates to Fort Lauderdale in the winter, hugged the children after giving each a gift.
She said she started the toy giveaway 22 years ago "to show Atlantic City in a positive light."
"Last year we took on a hundred families," she said. "This year we are actually doubling it."
In addition to toys and bagged lunches, each family this year was given a 26-pound, gift-wrapped food box with a canned ham, canned chicken, tuna, pasta, and cereal, among other items.
"Due to the mass layoffs, for 200 families we're kind of rounding out their Christmas," Seelig said. "We're not even touching it as far as the need."
She said the families face the difficult choice between needs and holiday wants.
"Do you buy presents, or do you save money for rent?" she said. "Absolutely, for some kids these are the only toys they'll get."
The Atlantic City-based nonprofit Just 4 Kids gets its funding and donations from Shore businesses.
"It seems like the city just can't catch a break," Seelig said. "Many of these kids also suffered from Hurricane Sandy just two years ago.
"People are afraid. Remember, this is their life. They don't know whether to move."
Richard Perniciaro, director at the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College, said his research had shown the layoffs were forcing some parents to uproot their families to find work.
"A lot of the school districts are starting to see kids just disappear," he said.
As his four young children received gifts, Felinon Carrillo, 46, thanked Seelig.
"This is very nice," he said. "Thank you so much."
Carrillo lost his job as a busboy at Revel when the casino closed over Labor Day weekend. He is still looking for work and supports his family through odd jobs in construction.
But those, too, are few and far between, he said. He worked only one year at Revel and did not qualify for severance pay.
"Money is tight this year," he said.