A month short of Christmas, the spirit of the season was out in force Sunday morning as hundreds of volunteers rolled into town with a convoy bearing thousands of gifts for needy children.
The Toys for Tots Convoy had a goal in its fourth year of delivering 13,000 toys, and while an exact count won’t be available until everything is sorted, turnout was very strong and organizers expected to far surpass the 10,000 toys collected through last year’s convoy.
“I’m overwhelmed, to tell you the truth,” said Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo, who began the convoy in 2014, his first year in office. In the main parking lot at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, it was easy to see why: The entire south side was packed with trucks and buses of all stripes, 200 or more waiting to drop off their collected donations.
“They’re still coming in — we’ve got the lots full.”
The program was begun in 1947 by Maj. Bill Hendricks of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. The Marine Corps Reserve remains closely involved in Toys for Tots, which grew to the point that a separate nonprofit foundation was formed to support it in 1989.
Numerous Marines were on the scene Sunday helping gather the donations in stackable Toys for Tots boxes, and sometimes keeping the empty boxes corralled as the gusty wind tried to make off with them.
Among the organizers of the drive is Staff Sgt. Patrick Lurenz.
“This is easily our largest event,” he said. “We broke a record this year with the number of agencies participating.”
Lurenz noted that there was an even bigger increase in the number of private businesses driving up with toys by the truckload and sackful.
“It helps us complete our mission: A toy for every child in need.”
The Capital Region Toys for Tots campaign serves a 14-county area from Albany north to Canada and southwest to Binghamton. The toys collected in the region this autumn are being gathered and sorted at a building owned by Legere Restorations on Erie Boulevard in Schenectady. They will be distributed to agencies and organizations that serve the needy in those same counties, which will hand them out to families with children.
Along with all the law enforcement, fire and emergency medical personnel in the SPAC parking lot Sunday were vehicles from all walks of the business world, from steel-welding Dimension Fabricators to coffee-brewing Dunkin’ Donuts.
Dunkin' Donuts is one of the area's largest supporters of Toys for Tots, collecting toys at more than 100 shops and donating $30,000 this year. The little Dunkin’ Mobile with the giant coffee cup on the back drew waves from the appreciative and/or cold people on the receiving line.
Among the emergency agencies bringing donations was the Vischer Ferry Volunteer Fire Company.
Lt. Ed Vargas, an organizer for his department’s toy drive, said it was a team effort that involved every level of the department and its auxiliary and also reached beyond, to the Vischer Ferry General Store, Okte Elementary School and the Crescent Estates South neighborhood association.
“We were able to collect upward of 750 toys,” Vargas said. “We’re helping to bring a smile to children’s faces on Christmas morning.”
At three per child, he said, the 750 toys loaded into the fire company’s Rescue 631 truck and Car 620 will be enough for 250 children.
“Just one child is reason enough in itself.”
Standing by in a line with flags in their hands and heavy motorcycle gear swaddling their bodies were a group of the Patriot Guard Riders, some of whom had ridden along with the motorcade in the windy 38-degree cold from its assembly point in Ballston Spa to the SPAC lot.
“It wasn’t bad,” ride captain Mike Hogan of Clifton Park said of the chilly weather. He said it was the third year in a row the convoy had been joined by the Patriot Guard, a group that more commonly escorts fallen servicemen and first responders to their final resting places.
On Sunday, they were out to support the Marines and their Toys for Tots drive.
“It’s an honor for us to be here,” Hogan said.