’21st Halloween Toy Giveaway’ wins Awesome Kingston October grant

Dean of Awesome Matt Dubblestein, with John and Krista Casnig, winners of the October 2022 Awesome Kingston grant money. Photo via Awesome Kingston’s Facebook page.

Every month, Awesome Kingston awards a $1,000 grant to a local project that the trustees think will keep Kingston awesome. This month, the 21st Halloween Toy Giveaway project was awarded the honour. 

For the past 20 years, John and Krista Casnig have been giving away toys on Halloween, as part of their overall mission to inspire community and connection, which they do, and have done, through many different events and gatherings over the years.

“Halloween was the first social initiative coming out of our home — and its underlying principles of implicit equity and inclusion remain in all other things we do to this day,” John Casnig shared. “Our own neighbourhood was too dangerous for kids, with cars speeding by and dirty needles in the leaves. Our friends David and Nadine allowed us to spread our toys on their living room floor, allowing kids a safe place to make their choices. It was an immediate hit, aided greatly by David and Nadine’s decorations and warmth.”

Casnig shared that they began the Halloween toy giveaway in 2001, in part as a response to the “social unease surrounding the 9/11 attacks.” They also hoped to learn what toys kids were interested in ahead of toy drive season.

“It was immediately obvious that a percentage of kids had various social issues or came from disadvantaged homes,” Casnig noted. “To address these kids directly risked outing them or humiliating them with charity. We built our giveaway to reflect all kids evenly, those without issues being treated no differently, a way of anonymizing hardship so every kid could have dignity.”

In his Awesome Kingston pitch, Casnig said that the selection of items is key. “We aim to address the wants and needs of every potential child who comes — typically eagerly running to us from blocks away — keeping in mind the breadth of their potential interests. The children will choose among hundreds of items, giving many of them the only agency they feel all year. That is, the choice is made by the kids, not the parents (though admittedly, some parents helicopter a choice).”

He also noted that “kids” means kids of all ages. “The kids we are prepared for range in age from babies to university students (it’s often an international student’s first Halloween) and even the occasional senior,” he shared. “Whoever wants or needs this is going to be there, whether to choose a toy, to enjoy the energy, or to socialize with a hot chocolate. It’s never too late to be young.”

When COVID-19 arrived, the pair “ramped up things up considerably” to reflect the kids’ greater need for a sense of stability and safety. Casnig shared that the last two years had bigger kits that were fully engaging and developmental, including kits for such things as science, arts, and baking, each in a fully sanitized gift bag.

“This year is necessarily a return to mostly single items, though we always have things that we go overboard with — and for good reason: for the right kid, the right item will truly be life-changing,” he stated. “Years ago, one girl came back saying that the recorder we gave her years before was the FIRST instrument she learned to play. Emphasis on FIRST.”

The Awesome Kingston money will allow John and Krista to expand the range and number of toys and items on offer this Halloween, including cups of hot chocolate and hot apple cider, “the fuel for running around to get toys,” and either a tent or van rental to better display the items on offer and protect them from the Halloween elements.

The Halloween giveaway takes place on Halloween night, at a home near the corner of Main and Ann Streets. John, dressed as Leatherface, slows traffic and guides kids to the giveaway, as well as to other homes with candy in the neighbourhood. Krista attends to the kids as they choose their treasure.

John Casnig dressed as Leatherface to usher kids to both the giveaway and other houses offering candy on Halloween. Submitted photo.

According to John, Krista is the heart and soul of the giveaway, and he takes care of any needed adjustments afterwards so that every kid leaves happy. “Essentially, I ask each kid excitedly what they got, and if they sound at all disappointed, I fix things.”

“Our biggest purpose of appearing at Awesome Kingston was to try to get other neighbourhoods to copy us this year and in the future,” he expressed. “However, in the end, we really needed this grant because it meant being publicized — but by being publicized, we would need that many more toys and such. This was the same for the Volleyball Committee or Tobogganing Committee pitches, which resulted in more people there, too, and naturally higher costs — but have indeed inspired similar initiatives elsewhere.”

“Halloween is our favourite Christmas. The kids come running each year in all kinds of weather. I keep the street safe and connect the neighbourhood, while Krista tends to the kids as they make their choices — for themselves, by themselves, giving them agency and freedom of identity. Who they are will be reflected in what they choose.”

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