Annual Toys for Tots campaign underway in Centre County

After guests at the 2013 Centre County Toys for Tots kickoff breakfast finished their meals Monday, Nicole Summers gave them something else to chew on.

Summers, the executive director of the FaithCentre thrift store and food bank in Bellefonte, urged the crowd to remember to give food along with new toys during the Marine Corps Reserve’s annual holiday campaign.

Hunger, she said, is on the rise locally. Last month, FaithCentre’s food bank served 870 people — almost triple the monthly total from when Summers started in 2007.

This Christmas, she said, FaithCentre expects to feed more than 1,000 people, highlighting the need for food donations. Toys for Tots families who register through Centre County’s seven food banks receive groceries for a holiday dinner.

“Taking that anxiety away for a family, letting them know they can put on a Christmas meal and they can have toys, is just such a blessing for this community,” Summers said.

The breakfast at the Ramada Hotel and Conference Center launched the 27th county Toys for Tots campaign organized by the Nittany Leathernecks Detachment 302.

About 250 collection points around the county will accept new, unwrapped toys, books and games for infants to teenagers until Dec. 15. Items for older children such as backpacks, sporting equipment, watches and jewelry also are taken.

Volunteers will wrap toys Dec. 14-18 at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel. Every year, the local campaign distributes about 14,000 toys to more than 3,000 children, each of whom receive four gifts.

“No one in this room is paid to do what we do,” said campaign coordinator Gene Weller, a retired Marine major, to the audience. “It’s a love of helping folks less fortunate in our community.”

Dan Weidensaul, the breakfast’s guest speaker, played his part by helping create the present national Toys for Tots television promo.

Weidensaul, the deputy assistant chief of staff for the advertising department of the Marine Corps Recruiting Command, lives in Virginia, but he has local roots. His parents own the Tannenbaum Farms Christmas tree farm near Potters Mills.

Among its duties, Weidensaul’s team makes and distributes Toys for Tots campaign materials. Their 2007 “Christmas Morning” spot, made for Toys for Tots’ 60th anniversary, shows a family awakening to a threadbare tree — until a Marine in dress uniform, toting a bulging red bag, shows up on their snowy doorstep and saves the day.

Discussing the film’s production, Wiedensaul said his team tried to match the standard set by the classic 1997 spot “Guard Duty,” in which a small boy decides that a Marine sentry is Santa and hands him his wish list.

In the end, Weidensaul said, “Christmas Morning” turned out “pretty good.” Judging from the applause after it played Monday, his audience agreed.

Though the spot cost $380,000 to make, it has brought a 30-fold return in donations from being aired year after year, to higher ratings each time, Weidensaul said.

“I think that’s a testament to the cause you guys support,” he said.

Donna Weller, the local wrapping and food donation coordinator, said that cause increasingly must focus on food as well as toys because food pantry supplies aren’t keeping up with demand.

She asked business owners in the audience to consider setting out an extra collection box for food.

“We just need your help in making this drive successful,” she said.

Last year, she recalled, a stranger came up to her in a supermarket and revealed how much Toys for Tots can help. The woman and her husband had lost their jobs, and their three young children faced a bleak Christmas.

Then a friend suggested Toys for Tots, and the children had a merry time after all.

“A situation that seemed very hopeless was solved because of your generosity,” Weller said.

The Penn State men’s and women’s basketball teams are offering two opportunities to help. With a new toy, tickets will be $5 for the men’s game on Dec. 7 and the women’s game on Dec. 15.

Fans can follow the advice of singer Nat King Cole, who recorded a Toys for Tots radio spot decades ago.

“You can be a Santa if you lend a hand,” went the jingle Weidensaul played for the audience. “Yes siree, there won’t be an empty stocking in the land.”