Gifts of the Magi

Carmen Quinones, president of the tenants association at the Frederick Douglass Houses in Manhattan Valley. Photo courtesy of Carmen Quinones

An uphill drive to bring holiday toys, clothing, teddy bears and Disney characters to the children of the needy families of Manhattan Valley


Many of the residents of the Frederick Douglass Houses on the Upper West Side simply can’t afford to buy Christmas presents for their kids.

Struggling to get by on the average annual public housing family income of $24,423, they don’t give gifts because they need the funds for food.

And that’s where Carmen Quinones comes in: A resident for 43 years, she has long been known as a “one-woman Santa Claus,” neighbors say.

For three out of the past four years, Quinones has hosted an annual holiday party. She’s showered the children with presents and love. And she’s paid for most of it out of her own pocket.

But this year — after burying her father, barely surviving Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, facing serious health issues related to lupus and confronting financial pressures of her own — she needs a little bit of help to pull it off.

“We’re talking about 100 to 150 kids, as young as zero and as old as 14, and the party has always been a blessing to them,” she said. “These are families that can’t afford Christmas. They have real needs. And if we’re forced to cancel the party, their children will have nothing.”

Quinones has turned to a Facebook page to raise $2,000, which is the approximate tab for food and gifts. But thus far, only $255 has trickled in from five donors in the 48 days since she posted the appeal.

She needs to have the money in hand well before Christmas to buy the presents and decorate for the party, which actually takes place on Jan. 6, Three Kings Day, a holiday that’s hugely popular in the Caribbean, at 830 Columbus Avenue off 100th Street between 3 and 8 p.m.

Don’t bet against her: Steeped in the world of community organizing, Quinones has been the president of the tenants association at the Douglass Houses for the past three years.

She’s also a politically savvy friend of politicians and elected officials who has run political campaigns for 11 years through Grassroots Inc., her consulting firm, and served as a Democratic district leader for eight years and a Democratic state committeewoman for four years.

“Carmen deserves enormous credit for putting a little joy in the hearts of children and their parents,” said City Council Member Mark Levine, who represents a large swath of the West Side that encompasses the Douglass Houses.

“She’s managed to bring resources to residents who may not have the discretionary funds to provide gifts for their kids, and she’s created an event that the residents look forward to every year,” added Levine, who said he expects to attend, as he has in past years.

This year, the need is greater than ever at the Douglass Houses, an 18-building, 2,600-apartment city housing development — bounded by 100th Street on the south, 104th Street to the north, Manhattan Avenue on the east and Amsterdam Avenue to the west — that is home to some 4,500 Manhattan Valley residents.

That’s because starting in October, two months before winter begins, there were already outages of heat and hot water in the 22-acre complex, which was built in 1958, occupies a land mass equal in size to Rockefeller Center and is operated by the troubled New York City Housing Authority.

“We’ve already had pipes bursting, there’s been a lot of flooding, and the lack of heat and hot water is only going to get worse in the winter,” Quinones said.

“That means we don’t just need to buy toys for the kids, we also need to make sure they have hats and scarfs and gloves,” she added. “It’s always good to give children little teddy bears, but in a cold winter when there’s not enough heat, they have other needs, too.”

Quinones says she only wishes she could afford to give pajamas to all the kids in Frederick Douglass.

“It would be a pretty sad commentary on the current situation at NYCHA if the kids in the Douglass Houses don’t get any toys this year because of the need for hats and gloves and sweaters,” Levine said.

Quinones wants them to have both. And she’s already eyeing Disney characters, Cinderella dolls, action figurines, trucks that light up, teddy bears, stuffed animals, educational videos, heart-shaped items and dozens of other potential gifts.

There’s just a couple of requirements: “No guns,” she said. “No blood. No violence. And everything has to have some love in it.”

Readers wishing to contribute to the holiday party at the Douglass Houses can send donations to the Frederick Douglass Residents Council, 880 Columbus Avenue, New York, New York 10025