If you were to walk into the Salvation Army gymnasium this week, you might find it to be a bit crowded — not with children or athletes playing a sport — but with bags and boxes bulging with thousands of toys.
The Owensboro Marine Corps League has been coordinating Toys for Tots since 2006, but in 2010 entered into a relationship with the Salvation Army that would prove to benefit both organizations.
“We needed a place for distribution and we needed help in screening applicants to [be] eligible for toys,” said Jerry Paul, Marine Corps League Toys for Tots co-coordinator. “They [the Salvation Army] do the screening and they do the distributing, and we do the gathering of toys.”
Paul and coordinator Lou Drawdy have been involved with Toys for Tots locally since 2006.
“Our motto is we believe that every child deserves a toy,” Paul said. “We do our best to give a toy. If we are fortunate enough, which it looks like maybe this year, we will accumulate enough that they can each have two toys.”
The first year of collecting for Toys for Tots, the organization brought in 500 toys. Since that time, with the collaboration of the Salvation Army, that outpouring of toys and support has continued to grow.
“We’ve just been blessed with good people to come forward and help us and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger every year,” Paul said.
The Marine Corps League began planning for this year’s campaign Oct. 1 and will collect toys through Dec. 20. Paul said the organization covers eight to nine counties and Rockport.
“Whatever monies is gathered here is spent here; it stays right in this community,” Paul said. “It doesn’t go anyplace else.”
Paul said the Marine Corps League volunteers check the boxes every one to two days, gather the toys that have been collected into bags and bring them back to the gymnasium to be separated by gender and age group.
Several of the Marine Corps League volunteers in are in their 70s and 80s, yet they continue to collect and sort toys like a well-oiled machine because it is a cause they feel passionate about. That was demonstrated in the smile that appeared on Jerry Paul’s face as he picked up a small foam sports ball and palmed it in his right hand.
“This here,” Paul said. “I’ll soon be 82 years old. I had two Christmases I didn’t get nothin’ — this would have been tremendous, and we have children the same way right now.”
Although, so far, this appears to be one of Toys for Tots’ largest collection years in the area, there is still a need for toys for children ages 12-15. Because smaller children are often easier to shop for, Paul said this year they have added make-up and shaving kits for some of the older children, and they have received one taller bike. They are hoping to receive more larger bikes — with 24-inch frames and over — and items that might be more appealing to a teenager.
With the monetary donations Toys for Tots receives, they are limited to only spending $30 per toy and must receive special permission to make larger purchases such as bikes. This is why donations from individuals and businesses are so crucial, Paul said.
This week the final toys will be collected and separated into bags so that the families can come to the Salvation Army for distribution.
“We leave the toys new and unwrapped so they can present them to the children as a gift from Santa,” said Drawdy.
After the Salvation Army has distributed their designated toys, whatever toys are remaining will be dispersed throughout other organizations including Christmas Wish, Goodfellows, the jail ministry and the housing authority.
“We reach out in the community,” Paul said. “Salvation Army is first on the list, but we don’t save nothing. It all goes somewhere. Come Jan. 15 we’re finished.”
Paul, who at age 82 has just returned to Toys for Tots after taking a four-year break, still can’t deny his passion for children, and finds it hard to stay away.
“I love kids, they’re the backbone of any and everything,” Paul said. “To reach out and help a kid is just the highlight of all highlights for me. I just feel good doing it.”
For those still wanting to donate to Toys for Tots, toy donation runs through this week, and any checks that are written must be made out to “Toys for Tots” and dropped off with a store manager at a local participating retailer or at the Salvation Army on Ewing Road.