HAVERHILL — A shopping trip to the Plaistow Walmart was like nothing these children had ever experienced before.
One hundred children attending the after-school care program at the YMCA in Haverhill got an early Christmas present from the owners of a chain of Dunkin' Donut shops.
They were told they could select gifts at the Plaistow Walmart for themselves, or for anyone they wished, just as long as they left the store happy and smiling.
"This is really exciting," said Rylee Spear, 9. "When my mother takes me here I see all the toys and I wish I could get one, but she usually tells me we are just there to get soap or something like that."
The Cafua Family Charitable Foundation, the charitable arm of the Methuen-based Cafua Management Company, the largest privately owned Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee in the U.S., helped spread holiday cheer by presenting each child with $100 Walmart gift cards.
Company owners, brothers Mark, David and Gregory Cafua told children they could buy whatever they wanted at the Plaistow Walmart, where they had arranged for a special shopping night on Monday.
Mark Cafua said he and his brothers were particularly touched after learning about some of the children.
"We have six children from one family who recently lost their father," he said.
About 70 or so Cafua employees along with YMCA staff waited with shopping carts decorated with green and red helium balloons, and along with Santa Claus, welcomed the children as they disembarked two school buses.
From 4 to 6 p.m., each child was paired with a Cafua Management Company employee, with CEO Mark Cafua leading the charge and Y regional Executive Director Tracy Fuller and YMCA of the North Shore CEO Chris Lovasco joining in to lend a hand.
"In my 20 years working for the nonprofit YMCA, this is one of the coolest ways to give back to the community," Lovasco said.
The store's toy department began to swell with starry-eyed children, some of whom brought wish lists and had a good idea of what they wanted, while others marveled at everything on the shelves, but often had a hard time deciding on what to choose.
Shopping carts rapidly filled with toys, such as Pokemon characters and Num Noms Art Cart playsets, which Ariela Jimenez, 8, picked out for herself.
"I'm also shopping for my mom and dad," Ariela said.
Isaac Acevedo, 9, studied the image on a box of Lego pieces before his attention was drawn to Star Wars toys.
"I like this," Isaac said about a foot-tall Darth Vader action figure he picked out.
Their adult shopping guides kept track of how much they had left on their gift cards.
"I'm looking for fashion boots," Angela Tejada told her guide.
Caleb Carroll, 7, selected a Five Night's at Freddy's plush cupcake along with two Yo-kai watches and accessories.
"I never had $100 before," Caleb said. "I almost couldn't sleep last night thinking about coming here."
While the other little shoppers were wandering from aisle to aisle, Isabella Lombard, 6, was trying out a bicycle with training wheels.
"My bike is rusty and doesn't work very well," said Isabella, who noted that she was also in need of a bicycle helmet.
Jyzaiah Ferreira, 12, reached for an XBox Live gift card for himself, then asked his adult shopping guide how much he would have left as he wanted to buy Christmas presents for his mother, father and younger brother.
"This has never happened to me before," Jyzaiah said. "I was going to use my birthday money to buy presents, but now I can keep saving it."
Samantha Ehlers, 7, asked her shopping guide if she had enough left to donate $35 to a charity after picking out a Disney Lion Guard Training Lair Playset, some Squinkies Do Drops characters and a Little Live Pets Tweet Talking Bird for herself, in addition to a Dinosaur Train character she planned to donate to the Toys for Tots program.
"I want to donate to a charity, but I'm not sure which one," Samantha said.
Some children wandered into the footwear and clothing departments, such as Ellie Cosme, 10, who was busy picking out a set of pajamas and slippers for herself while her younger brother Gabriel had just about finished filling a shared shopping cart with toys.
"I was good all year and at my parent teacher conference, my mom said she was very proud of me," Ellie said before turning her attention to gifts she planned to get for her parents.
Mark Cafua said his company operates about 300 Dunkin' Donut franchise locations throughout New England and Florida, including one on River Street near Westgate Plaza and another at 20 Plaistow Road, both in Haverhill.
"The goal of our 100 for 100 program is to spread joy, especially to the youngest members of our communities, during this most special time of year," said Mark Cafua. "We truly value our partnership with the YMCA of the North Shore, as it has provided us with the opportunity to not only reach those most in need of Christmas cheer, but also to engage our employees in meaningful programs within their own communities."
Cafua said that he and his brothers have hosted similar shopping sprees for deserving children in other states where they operate, but this was the first time for Haverhill.
He said his company partnered with the Plaistow Walmart as it was a good fit for the children, who had expressed interest in not only toys, but in clothing and household items many of them planned to give as gifts on Christmas.
Fuller said the YMCAs mission and purpose as a community organization is to meet the ever-growing needs of individuals, children and families all year round.
"The holidays are especially important as we explore additional ways to help those in need,” Fuller said. “We are so grateful for Cafua Management and this wonderful 100 for 100 event. We appreciate their incredible support of so many of our programs, including camp, road races, and our financial assistance program. Their generosity is a true testament to their commitment to joining us in strengthening the communities we serve.”
Leading up to the event, the children created wish lists during their Y after school program. Fuller said Walmart management was helpful in assisting the Y and Cafua teams to ensure a smooth and fun experience for everyone involved.