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New Yorkers party for a purpose

By Jo Piazza, Special to CNN
New Yorkers brought unwrapped toys and made $20 donations to the Make A Difference-NYC party on Sunday night.
New Yorkers brought unwrapped toys and made $20 donations to the Make A Difference-NYC party on Sunday night.
  • More than 100 New Yorkers provided toys for kids in need
  • Former nightclub promoter Michael Gallegos is founder of Make a Difference-NYC
  • One wrapped toy or a $20 donation buys entry to the party

New York (CNN) -- It could have been any other night at the Aspen Social Club in midtown Manhattan, except on this evening more than 100 New Yorkers mixed, mingled and sipped free booze for the worthy cause of providing toys for kids in need.

The party Sunday was hosted by Make a Difference-NYC, an organization that raises money to provide homeless children in New York with holiday gifts. The entry fee to the chic lounge was one wrapped toy or a $20 donation.

Former nightclub promoter Michael Gallegos, founder of Make a Difference, started throwing his gift-giving holiday party 10 years ago. He would invite the same clientele he ushered behind velvet ropes and into a bar or club any other night of the week, except with this party, on one night, he specified that guests had to bring toys.

In the past decade the party has grown from a small gathering of friends to a high-profile event with a silent auction that included a baseball signed by Yankee Derek Jeter, two liquor sponsors, a menu from chef Luca DiTomaso of the hip restaurant Luca Lounge and even a celebrity host, Saturday Night Live cast member Will Forte.

Gallegos had a very personal reason for starting the toy drive: He grew up homeless. When he was 8 years old, his mother left his abusive father and the family lived in and out of shelters on the south side of Brooklyn.

"I had toys until I was 8 years old," Gallegos said. "And then we didn't get toys anymore for the holidays. My cousin told me we could steal toys. Instead we stole hats and mittens from a store. I sold them on the street for $3 and I bought myself a GI Joe."

Gallegos said that stealing was only the start of teenage years filled with bad behavior that included dropping out of school and dealing drugs. He shaped up in his 20s and decided he wanted to try to save kids like himself from themselves, which is why he believes the holiday toy drive isn't just about giving one toy to a kid.

"I want the kids who receive the toys to get another day of childhood. I want the toy to show them that there is hope and that somebody cares about them so they don't go out and start screwing up the way I did," Gallegos said.

Those who donated say picking out and delivering the toys to the bar brought nearly as much joy to them as it will to the hundreds of kids getting gifts this year.

Jenna Driggers, 23, spent hours trying to select just the right present, trying to remember what she would have wanted as a little girl.

"It was so much fun picking out the gift," Driggers, an aspiring law student who lives in Manhattan, said of the aspiring fashion designer art kit she purchased. "I enjoyed shopping for the present more than I expected and it feels so nice to give back."

Christian Accetta, 34, was delighted with himself for walking through Times Square with one of his presents, a bright green stuffed frog, wearing converse sneakers, perched on top of his shoulders.

"I just felt really good walking down the street with the frog and this big bag of toys. People were looking at me and I was like 'Yup, these are toys for kids.' "

If there was anything that Accetta and the other men who attended Sunday night's party learned it is that one should never underestimate the power of the charitable pickup line.

In a room where the ratio of women to men was slightly skewed in favor of those carrying a Y chromosome, Ron Walker, 26, found that chatting up women went pretty smoothly, because the event provided an automatic icebreaker.

"I could go in and ask them what toy they brought and tell them about the toy I brought. It's an easy way to move into more questions about someone's family and childhood and it actually means something," Walker said.

The Make a Difference event did turn into quite the pickup scene, filled with women in stilettos and fashionable minidresses and men in suits without ties. As toys -- 200 total, including an Edward Cullen doll, board games, Legos and stuffed animals -- began piling up under a bright red Christmas tree, folks got more and more friendly.

But even the giving spirit isn't immune from the economic realities facing New York and the rest of the country.

"Unfortunately we did not have the turnout we had hoped for, so we're scrambling to raise more funds. This year has been considerably more difficult due to the economy. We are determined to make it happen for the children," said Make a Difference co-founder Stacia Banta.

This year's event raised around $8,000, compared to $24,000 last year. Remaining auction items, including the signed Derek Jeter baseball, will be auctioned on the organization's Web site,

The trickle-down effect of good will continues later this week when the donated gifts and presents bought with proceeds from the event will be wrapped by children at the School for Global Leaders on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The toys will be delivered to shelters and children's programs across the city on December 22 and 23, just in time for the holiday.

Gallegos delights in his role as Santa Claus to kids in need, but is always careful to maintain the mystery behind the gifts, because he knows firsthand that no one needs a little magic in their lives more than the kids who receive his presents.

"Last year a little girl came up to me and asked me if I was Santa Claus," Gallegos said. "I said, 'No, I'm an elf.' She asked if Santa was picking me up and I had to tell her nope, all the other elves and I had to ride the F-train to meet Santa at 34th Street. That answer put a smile on her face."