By Jenny Neyman
Ever wonder what a holiday elf feels like? Volunteering for Toys for Tots offers that experience.
“I’m a toy Sherpa,” said Cassandra Winslow, perennial hauler of donation boxes for the annual toy drive on the Kenai Peninsula, held Oct. 1 through Dec. 13 in Kenai, Soldotna and Homer.
Reindeer service is an important part of Toys for Tots, as the donations need to be collected from the 30-plus drop-off locations in area businesses and offices, as well as transporting the hundreds of additional toys bought Sunday at Fred Meyer with money collected in fundraisers this year.
By Monday evening all the toys had been hauled to the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center and stuffed in any secure area possible — much of them in director Johna Beech’s office.
“I think we have a lot to do,” said volunteer Dawni Marx, surveying the mountain of boxes and bags containing all manner of toys and games, leaving uncovered just Beech’s desk and a narrow path leading to it.
“It’s stuffed in here!” said Isaak Winslow, 7, who, along with sister Danika, 9, was a “Sherpa in training” with their mom.
“Yeah, it is,” Beech replied. “Count ’em as you drag ’em.”
Thus began the procession of toy-stuffed bags and boxes — some as big as the kids trying to lug, drag and slide them — from her office into the main gallery space down the hall, where everything was piled on one side of the room, then counted as it was moved to new piles on the other side.
From there all the items were loaded into a box truck and hauled yet again, this time to The Salvation Army, where distribution will take place. The most-important trip still awaits the toys, when they’re brought home with parents to be wrapped and stored under the tree to be given to their kids on Christmas.
“It’s so amazing to work (at the toy distribution), but it’s so sad to think we have that level of poverty in our community, too,” Beech said.
It’s both heart-breaking and heartwarming duty.
The local branch of the program started in 2009, with an idea that came in 2008. Beech was working for Spenard Builders Supply at the time, and employees at the company’s Christmas party decided to donate toys to those in need. Beech was familiar with the Toys for Tots program from other places she’s lived, and thought it would be a good venue for the donations. That is, until she realized the program didn’t operate on the peninsula.
“My grandfather used to take my brother and I to buy a toy and donate it to Toys for Tots every year. So it’s something I’ve been familiar with on the giving side ever since I was a child,” she said. “So in 2008 I was giving them grief in Anchorage that they didn’t have a program down here.”
She was told Toys for Tots is a program of the U.S Marine Corps Reserve, so she contacted the local Marine representative here at the time, Staff Sgt. Boyd Jorgensen, and the two started a local branch of the program in 2009. Area businesses and organizations volunteered to serve as donation drop-off locations, and they planned fundraisers to be able to buy items to cover any age groups that didn’t get enough donations.
“Typically we miss the teenagers in the donations,” Beech said. “The gap is always the older kids, the 12- to 17-year-olds.”
The biggest fundraiser is a Toy Toss held in conjunction with the Kenai River Brown Bears hockey team, and the current Marine representative in the area, Lance Corp. Jeff Melvin. At a home game, a National Guard Humvee is driven out on center ice. People buy stuffed animals with raffle tickets attached, and at halftime pitch the toys onto the ice. Any that make it in the open top hatch of the vehicle are put in a drawing to win prizes donated from the drop-off location sponsors.
“My happiest moment is at the Toy Toss seeing how excited people are to contribute,” Beech said.
The other fundraiser was held this year at Main Street Tap and Grill in Kenai. It’s as catchy as it can be eyebrow-raising – Shots for Tots, where bar patrons donate money in exchange for beer from a keg of beer — this year donated by Kenai River Brewing Co., then sponsored by both Udelhoven and Magnum Motors.
“Some people get their nose tweaked when they hear it — ‘You’re raising for children with booze?’ Yes, yes we are,” Beech said. “It’s catchy and it’s targeting people who maybe wouldn’t otherwise be donating to this.”
It’s all in good fun, and with a great return. This year the Toy Toss and Shots for Tots raised $3,600, which purchased 315 toys at Fred Meyer on Sunday.
That’s another favorite part of the program for volunteers, the shopping spree.
“The fun part is the toy buy, walking around with baskets full of toys and a couple of Marines in full uniform. You get noticed,” Marx said.
“In years past when people see the Marines in uniform and ask what they’re doing they’ll reach in their wallet and pull out money and give it to the Marines right there,” Winslow said.
“People get so jazzed, it’s awesome,” Beech said.
Including the volunteers. What could be more fun than playing Santa? Especially with all the cool new toys to ogle over. This year the toys were quieter than in years past, the volunteers observed, with less that talk, sing or otherwise are noise responsive.
“Cassandra can attest to that,” Beech said. “Some years she’ll be driving and they’ll go off in her truck and start talking to each other. This year there’s not as many loud toys.”
Arts and crafts supplies were in large supply, as were toys boasting new technology.
Particularly interesting was a soccer ball designed to be used indoors.
“That was pretty cool,” said Penny Furnish. “And there’s colored Jenga now. That got a lot of comments.”
“When we spend the money at the toy buy it’s a very tangible return on what we do. This is the other part that makes me happy,” Beech said.
The thought of the toys going to kids in need is what motivates Winslow to her Sherpa duties.
“The families, knowing there are kids that wouldn’t have Christmas,” Winslow said.
At her kids’ school, Winslow hears from the principal that there are students whose families don’t even have a proper home — they might live in an RV or some other not-suited-for-Alaska-winter housing — much less a budget for Christmas gifts.
“It’s (confidential) when you hear something like that. So you don’t know the families, but you know what you do is going to help families who need it,” Winslow said.
Toy distribution is handled by The Salvation Army, which also distributes food boxes and coats to families in need at the holidays. To participate, families must fill out an application demonstrating financial need. On the appointed day, families come pick up a food box and can select two toys for each of their kids, ages newborn to 17.
“The parents get to shop for their kids. They take it home, wrap it up and put it under the tree, and the kids are no wiser about where the toys are coming from unless the parents decide to tell them,” Beech said.
All donations collected on the peninsula go to peninsula families. In 2009, the program was able to provide about 800 toys.
“And we were just over the moon, and every year it just keeps growing,” Beech said.
This year, between toys collected in drop-off locations, a last-minute donation of 248 toys from the Soldotna Elks and the additional items purchased with money from the fundraisers, Toys for Tots is providing 1,605 toys to area kids.
“All our volunteers, partners, the Marines and our community are amazing,” Beech said. “Everybody deserves a little Christmas.”