The annual Centre County Toys for Tots campaign is preparing to serve the community for the 30th year, and Retired United States Marine Corps Maj. Gene Weller is hoping for another successful holiday season.
Weller started the local campaign in 1986 when he recognized the need for a program in the growing Centre County region. At the time, there were several programs forming around the country and in 1991 the Marine Corps officially formed the Toys for Tots Foundation. Thirty years after he collected and distributed his first toys, Weller said the program has changed his life.
“It’s become part of my life,” Weller said. “Initially I was a reservist and this is a reserve function, so I felt the need to be involved, but after a while it really has become part of what I am.”
Throughout the year the Centre County food pantries identify families who are candidates for the program. Once a list is compiled they pass it off to Weller and the toy collection begins.
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The program receives toys in three ways: donation drop boxes, toy purchases made form cash donations and toys sent from the Toys for Tots Foundation. The largest amount of donations comes from more than 250 drop boxes throughout the county.
Marine Corps Cpl. and volunteer Bob Johnson is one of the people responsible for picking up the toys from the drop boxes. Johnson said the boxes have already been receiving large amounts of toys. He often collects from the YMCA in State College, and when he arrived last week he was in for a surprise.
“I didn’t collect in a few days and when I got there the box was overflowing and there were toys on the ground,” Johnson said. “I was shocked to see that many toys already.”
On average, the local program receives nearly 18,000 toys. Once they are collected the toys are hauled to the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center, where a room donated by Penn State acts as the heart of the campaign. Over a three day period more than 1,000 volunteers from around the county sort, wrap and bag the toys for distribution to the food banks. Wrapping, however, is one way the local campaign stands out.
“Wrapping the toys is not a usual thing with Toys for Tots,” Weller said. “There are about 800 campaigns around the country and there are probably only a couple of dozen that wrap the toys.”
After the toys are wrapped there are usually leftovers. The program has space donated in Hills Plaza where families who were not referred to the program can pick up toys. Any remaining toys after the holiday season are given to more than 45 social service agencies to fill their needs.
Weller said it is a true team effort and he credits all of the people who volunteer every year with making the program such a success.
“We are providing hope and joy to those that otherwise may not enjoy what most of us take for granted,” Weller said. “It feels good to know we are having an impact.”
This season’s wrapping event runs from Dec.16- 19. at the Penn Stater. For more information about drop boxes and other ways to donate, visit www .lemont-pa.toysfortots.org
Toys for Tots wrapping schedule
Dec. 16 — 4-8 p.m.
Dec. 17 — 10 a.m.-noon (youth groups and scout troops); 2-6 p.m.
Dec. 18 — 2-6 pm.
Dec. 19 — 4-8 p.m.
Dec. 20 — 6 p.m., clean up and transfer of remaining toys
▪ All sessions open to the public, unless noted
▪ Sessions held on second floor of Penn Stater Conference Center
▪ Those attending wrapping sessions are asked to bring a food item for Centre County food pantries
Tickets for the Penn State women’s and men’s basketball games at 1 and 6 p.m., respectively, on Dec. 3 are $5 when bringing a toy to the ticket office.