By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Every year for the past 13, hundreds of Tonawanda-area residents have purchased toys and gifts to add to the brightly colored barrels scattered throughout Twin Cities locations
And every year, dozens of volunteers have given up hours of their time on one Sunday morning (and leading up to it) to make sure those gifts get to children who might not otherwise have much of a Christmas morning.
This is why.
On Sunday morning at the City of Tonawanda Fire Hall, the morning after the annual Rockin' With Santa musical event, dozens of parents waited in line for their chance to walk through a veritable Santa's workshop of toys, arranged neatly on tables by age group and type, all donated just for this day.
Among them, mom Carolyn held onto a bag as she selected gifts for her three children, ages 1, 3 and 4, picking out items including a small truck, a craft set, a ride-on toy ... and from piles of stuffed animals, a soft, brown puppy wearing a red scarf embroidered with "2013."
All of their family members are on the other side of the country, so they're alone here, she said.
"My husband is in school, so this is amazing for us. It's humbling, to need help, but it's amazing," she repeated, tearing up a little. "Just amazing."
Those approved for the event (names are gathered via the YWCA of the Tonawandas, the Head Start program, St. Vincent de Paul outreach program, Girard Place and others) check in, then are escorted through the room to select gifts.
At 9 a.m., when the event began, the tables were full. Dolls were lined up next to die-cast cars and action figures, and a box full of footballs rested next to a small barrel full of basketballs and soccer balls. Other tables include stacks of board games and puzzles and books, while another featured a menagerie of stuffed animals. Areas with potential gifts for older children included toiletries, craft sets and remote-control cars.
Younger children get three gifts each; older kids receive two. Families are also allowed one game or puzzle and craft set, as well as stuffed animals and stocking stuffers as long as they last.
Volunteers -- who arrived about 7:30 a.m. -- check people in, escort families, keep the tables organized, wrap gifts and take on myriad other duties throughout the morning. Mary Daumen, who also designed the toy drive and event posters with their familiar Santa mascot, manned the stuffed-animal table. She's been volunteering at the event for years.
"It's a good feeling today," she said. "Those who really need it ... it's awesome to see their faces."
John White, who with his wife Kate has been an organizer of the toy drive for its 13 years, said that after all those years, there's a system to the event. It's not without its bumps (one man Sunday morning tried to tell volunteers he had eight children, a claim quickly disproved by the agency that referred him), but most of the time, White said, it's Tonawanda at its finest.
"With 30 volunteers, all good-hearted, caring adults, the day they don't get goosebumps when the families come in is the day we quit," he said. "They all have a story."
It's true ... and the volunteers treasure those stories, from the parents who tried to refuse to take more than one toy because they could see how many others were waiting in line, to the the mother who was so overjoyed to find a stuffed sock-monkey for her son (his one Christmas request) that she offered to put every other selection back.
Volunteer Diane MacNeil has been involved all the years of the event. A friends of the Whites, she has a lot of those stories ... and she remembers when it could have been her.
"That was us," she said. "That was John and Kate and I and my husband when our kids were younger. We didn't have things. We had help.
"There's always that day that comes when you can give it back."
Once participants have selected gifts (and given a box of candy for themselves, courtesy of the Zonta Club), it's back to the hallway outside, where volunteers from the club and other community members are armed with countless rolls of wrapping paper, tape and gift tags.
"We go through a lot of paper, a lot of tape," said Zonta president Theresa Marone, who said that the event has been a club service project for years. "We raise funds for the community and we give our time, too. That's part of our mission."
As the hours for the toy event wound down Sunday and the tables started to get a little barer, things began to slow down ... but the present-wrappers continued in their mission. As one volunteer handed a brightly wrapped package to a woman juggling an armload of similar packages, they both smiled.
"Merry Christmas," she responded, gathering the gifts, "and ... thank you."