Fewer toys, more tots: United Way, Marines still provide thousands of playthings for this year’s Toys for Tots distribution

Toys for Tots image

Fewer toys, more tots: United Way, Marines still provide thousands of playthings for this year’s Toys for Tots distribution
Jeff Bahr - Grand Island Independent

Gavin Steinfeldt’s mother taught him the value of volunteering.

The 15-year-old served as a personal shopper Monday at the distribution of Toys for Tots, an event that his mother introduced him to when Gavin was 7 to 10 years old. Alyssa Steinfeldt volunteered at the Toys for Tots distribution, and her son came along.

Now a freshman at Grand Island Senior High, Gavin showed up on his own to help this year.

“I just felt it was my duty to society just to help out around Christmas,” he said. “This is a pretty happy time of year, so I just thought I’d pay it back to some people that were less fortunate than I am.”

Personal shoppers help parents choose toys for their children at the event, which is organized by Heartland United Way and the U.S. Marine Corps. The distribution was held Friday and Monday at Fonner Park’s Pinnacle Bank Expo Center.

Parents again had thousands of new toys from which to choose. But the demand for toys was greater this year, and it took more work to supply the toys.

Heartland United Way received 1,300 applications to pick up toys, which is about 300 more than normal. And the Marine Corps wasn’t able to provide as many toys as normal. COVID-19 prevented them from collecting as many donations as they normally do at malls and football games. But the Marines, like the caissons, go rolling along.

To add to the collection, Heartland United Way asked for help from businesses that are strong United Way supporters, which are called Pacesetters. About 20 of those firms held toy drives within their businesses. Members of the community also dropped off toys at the United Way office, said Cammie Benson, director of community engagement for Heartland United Way.

“I think our local collection actually went up a bit, so we’re really grateful for that,” Benson said.

Normally, each child receives two toys. This year, because of the shortage, each kid received one main toy. But parents also got to choose a stuffed animal, stocking stuffer and a game, book or puzzle for each child as long as supplies lasted.

One father was glad to get a connecting toy for his 7-year-old child. His son, he said, is “more of a builder.” It’s nice to have a variety of options, he said, “because all kids are different.”

For the first time, parents were able to pick up socks and underwear at the same time as toys. That program, announced during United Way’s campaign kickoff, is called Project Undercover.

Volunteers said the parents appreciated the convenience of all items available in one location.

“We might continue to collect socks and underwear for years to come,” Benson said.

The woman helping parents choose underwear and socks Monday morning was Jenny Arends.

“What size are you looking for, hon?” she asked one mom.

For Arends, it was her third year helping at Toys for Tots.

“I like to volunteer as much as I can,” said Arends, who works two jobs — at Sam’s Club and a nursing home.

Arends volunteers with Special Olympics and helps United Way during the State Fair.

Another volunteer helping out Monday was Doug Ostrander.

The event is called Toys for Tots, but tots are nowhere to be seen at the distribution. That’s because the presents are a surprise.

Many parents hear about the program from school social workers, and organizations that work with schools. Awareness is also spread through word of mouth.

This is the 23rd year of Toys for Tots, so many people know they should submit applications in early October.

Between Friday and Monday, about 100 volunteers helped with Toys for Tots. The number was limited this year in order to maintain social distancing.

“But yeah, they’ve been really great,” Benson said. “We couldn’t do it without them.”

It’s too late to participate in Toys for Tots this year.

But Benson suggests that parents in need of toys call the Salvation Army.