Toy drives keep holiday spirit alive

Jordyn McCallister, 5, opens a present during a party Dec. 15 by the Prison Fellowship Angel Tree Christmas Program in Granite City, Ill. A friend of Jordyn's family is currently incarcerated.

Walter Carolus recalls the first time he saw a bumper sticker that said something like, “The one with the most toys wins.”.

The saying is attributed to the late publisher Malcolm Forbes, a collector whose toys ran to motorcycles, hot air balloons, classic autos, Fabergé eggs, antique toy soldiers, rare model boats and vintage board games.

To Carolus, a retired design draftsman who lives in North Carolina, it was blasphemy. Worse, it was on his daughter’s car. He had one question for her: “Wins what?”.

It’s a fitting question for this holiday season, five years after the start of a recession that for many Americans has never ended. Who has “the most toys” and what do they win?

In a season torn between getting toys — adults’ and kids’ — and giving them away, those with the most toys are well known. Those who give toys to the needy, not as much. Yet at this time of year, they claim to be the winners.

They include a court stenographer who sees children suffer because of their parents’ crimes; an ex-con who knows from experience how a Christmas gift can unite a parent and child separated by bars; a woman who remembers the Christmas she received toys only through others’ charity; a man who loves a shopping spree.

And Mabry Barber, the 6-month-old who was crowned Miss Community Service last week at the Miss Merry Christmas Pageant in Highland, Ill., After her supporters collected 83 toys for needy tots.

The winners’ methods and motives are ones often applauded by Forbes and his eponymous business magazine. Pride, ego, competitiveness, acquisitiveness — all in the service of America’s poor children, whose numbers have grown by almost 3 million in recent years.

Many holiday toy drives are competitions — store vs. Store, health club vs. Health club, firehouse vs. Firehouse. A Clarkston, Mich., Financial services company split its 60 employees into Team Reindeer and Team Elf. The team that collects the most toys on a given day gets to wear jeans to work the next.

Two Sonoma County, Calif., Wineries are vying to see which can collect more toys. They’ll be loaded into multi-ton grape gondola “sleighs,” placed on scales and weighed to determine the winner. The rivalry has a sibling dimension: Jordan Vineyard is owned by John Jordan, while J Vineyards is run by his sister Judy.

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Sometimes there’s an element of self-interest. Landmark Mortgage in Livermore, Calif., Is inviting local real estate offices to compete to see who can do the most for the fire department’s drive. The winner gets to display a firefighter’s helmet trophy.

Aini Haider, Landmark marketing manager, says “it’s part of our marketing strategy to build personal relationships” with local Realtors, adding: “If you make anything a race, you get more participation.”.

Leah Morgan, a teacher and toy drive coordinator at Lancaster (Ohio) High School, agrees. She stokes competition among classes with morning PA updates. She says the teachers are more competitive than the kids.

Nothing is too corny for charity. In Olympia, Wash., Where Capital Medical Center and Olympia Orthopaedic Associates are locked in a toy drive challenge — the CEO of the loser will have to wear the logo of the winner all day Dec. 28.

The incentive — another capitalist tool extolled by Forbes — is increasingly popular. A $500 donation to the Dig Deep Foundation in San Francisco entitles you to participate in a three-hour, pre-opening group shopping spree at Target. Shoppers are whisked by limo at dawn to the store, where they each pick out thousands of dollars worth of toys for the Salvation Army. That night there’s a party to hand over the gifts.

To hear Dig Deep founder Rick Teed, it’s a bargain: “It feels insane to buy that many toys. You imagine the kids, and your heart expands. We take every shopping cart; we basically clean them out. The restocking people are running around behind us.”.

Doherty Enterprises, which owns 62 Applebee’s restaurants in New Jersey and Long Island, raised $322,000 last year for Toys for Tots through sales of gift tags and breakfasts with Santa. Top-performing managers win TVs or iPads, and servers get gift cards — “whatever’s going to let us do more than last year,” says Doherty’s Michelle Schmidt.

Top toy collectors get McDonald’s breakfast at Lancaster High and pizza at Pilot Mountain (N.C.) Elementary. Bring a new, unwrapped gift to the Human Bean in Fort Collins, Colo., And get $1 off your coffee. Bring one to the Viejas Casino near San Diego and get $5 in chips.

Dwight Burlingame of the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy says rechanneling the “most toys wins” ethos — “I can give more than you can!” — Is good strategy: “Americans see our competitive nature as a good thing. Why not use it for good?”.

The tactic seems to be working. The Toys for Tots program alone expects to give gifts to about 7.2 million children over the holiday. Some local drives have grown remarkably. One in San Luis Obispo, Calif., For example, went from 5,000 toys to 50,000 in two decades. In Mansfield, Mass., Coordinator Paul Connor boasts: “We collect more toys” — about 5,100 — “than votes are cast on Election Day.”.

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Many who give toys away at this time of year say it’s more than just the bike or the ball or the Barbie. Given in love, a toy can be a connection to your own past.

Christy Streicher of Alhambra, Ill., Remembers one particular Christmas Eve in church when she was a girl. She was sad because she knew that some kids would have no toys the next morning. She told her mother that one day she’d do something about that. Years later, after becoming a criminal court stenographer, she got involved in the Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program, which buys gifts for inmates’ children in their parent’s name.

Her Angel Tree role has steadily grown. She’s collected toys at her church and at the Madison County (Ill.) Courthouse, where she enlists judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, court officers and crime lab techs. She also coordinates the effort in Madison and eight other counties.

Four years ago, Streicher transcribed the hearing at which Nathaniel Hill was sentenced to 60 years in prison for murder. The following Christmas, she spotted his name among the Angel Tree requests from prisoners.

She has visited his daughter Janessa every Christmas since. She brings presents Janessa has requested through Angel Tree — a jewelry box, a stuffed teddy bear, a life-like baby doll — and says “this is from your Dad. He had to sign special papers so you could get these.”.

Streicher says that for her, “it’s a God thing” — Christ told his followers to serve those he called “the least of these” — and a good thing: “There is no greater joy you can feel than bringing joy to someone else.”.

Katie McKay of Foxborough, Mass., Remembers the Christmas when her father was hospitalized and out of work because of a car crash. If not for local veterans groups that stepped in, she and her brother would have had no presents.

Even at 61, “you don’t forget something like that,” she says. “Bad times come for everyone. You say it can’t happen to you, and then it does.”.

For 20 years she has tried to give back by collecting toys at the Chrysler parts warehouse where she works. Although the work force has dropped from 600 to around 70, she’s still amazed by the generosity of her co-workers, who fill a 6-by-6-foot parts shipping container called a coffin.

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Jeff Hopper of Vinton, La., Remembers the Christmases he spent behind bars for his role in the $1 million robbery of the Stardust Casino in Las Vegas in 1992. He’d lost touch with his family, including his 6-year-old daughter, until he got a note in pencil from her thanking him for her Christmas present, a Candy Land set. She said she’d wait to play it until he came home.

Hopper says that jolted him to senses, began his turnaround. When he got out he became a hospice chaplain, and today helps collect toys for inmates’ children.

He says he understands the pull of having the most toys: “It’s an identity. It makes you feel better about yourself. It’s a way to fill that void. But it’s shallow. It doesn’t work. You tell me you’ve got a $40,000 boat, so you’ve won? Tell me what you’ve done for other people.”.


Who has the most toys? Guinness World Records credits Bettina Dorfmann of Germany with the largest collection of Barbies — 15,000. The largest trove of Mickey Mouse memorabilia belongs to Janet Esteves, a Floridian with over 4,100 items.

This year two collectors decided to sell their toys. Brothers Paul and Bob Milhous, who kept their stuff in a building in Boca Raton, Fla., Got $34,500 for a Mercedes toy car and $1.3 million for a merry-go-round. The brothers, in their 70s, decided “it’s just time to move on,” Paul said.

Although many of Malcolm Forbes’ toys were mothballed or auctioned after his death, his philosophy has lived on. One need look no further than the past year’s obituaries.

“He who dies with the most toys wins” was on the license plate frame of Jack Smolens of Gloucester County, N.J., Who was said to have loved his boat. The same credo was mentioned in the obits of Nick Vossberg of Plato, Minn., Who loved his motorcycles, and George Evanson of Elgin, Ill., Who loved his airplanes, motor home bus and 72-stall horse barn.

There was a dissenter among the recently departed: Frances Sullivan of Enid, Okla. She once wrote to her local newspaper, “When you leave here, you’ll leave what you have, and take what you are.” So she did, on March 24.

As a student of scripture, Sullivan knew Psalm 49. It instructs those who observe Christmas or Hanukkah: “Do not be envious when some become rich, or when the grandeur of their house increases; for they will carry nothing away at their death, nor will their grandeur follow them.”.