Centre County Toys for Tots drive nears finish line

Kellie Rice usually volunteers to help wrap gifts for the local Toys for Tots program. But this year, she was away at college when the wrapping was done.

So on Friday, she joined with others in the Park Forest Baptist Church youth group to distribute toys to families that had not been served in the traditional manner, through local food pantries.

Folks who had not registered for Toys for Tots can still participate this weekend by visiting 2131 S. Atherton St., behind McDonald’s in the Hills Plaza.

The last-chance center will be open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, 2 to 7 p.m. Sunday and 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday.

Smiling young people will be there waiting to fill wish lists.

“It’s really fun,” said Rice, who attends Clarion University. “And the reactions of the people we give the gifts to really makes it special.”

This weekend brings the culmination of a monthlong effort across Centre County that will provide nearly 12,000 toys for local children this holiday season.

New, unwrapped toys were donated through dozens of drop sights before armies of volunteers gathered at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel last week to wrap and tag the presents.

Beginning Monday, fire departments delivered wrapped toys to food pantries in Bellefonte, Centre Hall, Howard, Millheim, Philipsburg and Snow Shoe. Toys for Centre Region families will be organized Saturday morning at Mountain View Country Club near Boalsburg and then taken to the Food Bank of the State College Area for distribution.

Gene Weller, who oversees the Centre County Toys for Tots effort, said that some 225 volunteers turned out last Sunday for wrapping despite the snowstorm that slammed the area. He figures another 500 people were at the Penn Stater on Monday making final preparations for the toys to be sent out to designated families.

On Friday, Weller announced that the 2013 program had hit its target of serving at least 1,500 local children through area food banks and the State Police Foster Child Program.

“Historically, this community has been so generous that we’ve never had a problem getting to our goal of four gifts per child,” Weller said. “We’ve once again certainly done that.”

But the elves aren’t quite done.

Starting Friday morning, families that had not registered previously could still get toys at the Hills Plaza site.

Lead organizer Sue Ott said a line was waiting for her when she opened the doors at 9 a.m.

Weller said that the number of individuals served on the final Toys for Tots weekend has dropped from 900 in 2009 to 350 last December, but not because the number of people facing hardship has declined.

“In a lot of cases, if the people are still in need, we’re getting them hooked up through the food pantries and getting them service throughout the year,” Weller said.

But if 900 people, or even more, show up at Hills Plaza this weekend, the volunteers will be ready. Five box trucks filled with toys were unloaded there Thursday night.

Any gifts left over will be made available to local service organizations after the first of the year. That practice was started by Ott’s late husband, Bob, a former county human services leader.

Jeremy Field, youth pastor at Park Forest Baptist, estimated that as many as 50 individuals from his church will be in action, including many in the high school and college age range.

“The kids love it,” Field said. “They know they’re making a difference in the community that they live in. It’s a small thing, but it makes such a difference to the people who come through the door.”

Each child receives four toys plus a stuffed animal and a book. The presents are matched with kids by age and gender, and pre-wrapped gifts are coded so children enjoy a variety of presents.

“When someone comes in, we put their orders in bags and wish them Merry Christmas,” Rice said. “They’re excited, always saying, ‘Thank you.’ Sometimes they have little kids with them, and their faces are so precious.”