Around the country, the holiday season is looking different than it has in years past. Up and down shopping districts, the gift-buying rush is tempered by social distancing measures and capacity limits for small retailers. Droves of consumers have chosen to place orders from ecommerce retailers instead, overwhelming delivery service providers. Families and friends are opting for smaller, more intimate gatherings over large celebrations.

However, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it's not quite so easy for first responder families to wait in line or shop online at their leisure. That's why the First Responder Children's Foundation has launched a Toy Express program to send more than 250,000 free gifts and face masks to children of emergency response workers.

Supporting first responder families through difficult holiday seasons

The First Responders Children's Foundation was established after 9/11, when hundreds of families were faced with the prospect of celebrating Thanksgiving after losing a loved one in the line of duty. The organization arranged a Thanksgiving Day Parade Breakfast for more than 800 children and family members.

As the foundation explains, this "began an annual tradition of welcoming devastated first responder families into a supportive environment to face the challenges of the start of a holiday season without a loved one."

This year, as countless first responders work tirelessly on the front lines of the pandemic, the First Responders Children's Foundation aims to add some comfort and joy to what's sure to be a difficult holiday season.

"Toy Express will help make a happy holiday for the children of our first responders which include nurses, firefighters, police officers, EMTs, paramedics, medical personnel and 911 dispatchers." said the organization's president, Jillian Crane, in a news release. "Our first responders are on the frontlines of the pandemic, and they continue to risk their own health every day in selfless service to their local communities across the country."

"The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.""The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement."

More than $1 million worth of toys donated

Although large in-person gatherings are not feasible this year, the First Responders Children's Foundation is still spreading holiday cheer to first responder families. It's all happening through partnerships with toy brands, mask manufacturers, logistics companies and families around the country who have made a donation.

The foundation's Toy Express is fueled by a donation of more than $1 million worth of toys from Mattel, including 5,000 American Girl Dolls, plus products from beloved Mattel brands like Hot Wheels, Barbie dolls and Mega Bloks. Other partners helping provide gifts and masks include Toys for Tots, Hess Toy Truck, Jakks Pacific, and Good360.

Logistics and transportation companies including CSX and Total Quality Logistics are also backing the program and helping ensure that the donated toys and masks quickly make their way to children around the country.

Toy Express to distribute gifts across more than 80 cities

The organization is spreading generosity and holiday cheer across 84 cities, partnering with local businesses and community organizers. For instance, in Saugerties, New York, more than 800 bags of toys, along with wrapping paper and donated food items, were passed out to first responder families.

"It wasn't just one or two gifts […] — each child received a bag of toys," said Macy Siracusano, vice president of Sawyer Motors, a business that partnered with the foundation to bring the Toy Express to local families. While children of all ages were welcome, "the intention of this was to help the parents for Christmas morning," Siracusano told a local news outlet.

"I think the way everyone was happy and appreciative, that's what makes it all worthwhile," she added. "It makes us want to do it again and again and again."

Members of the public who are interested in contributing to the toy drive or supporting the nonprofit can visit or text "TOY" to 24365.