Punching the Clock: Toy Soldier

For this week’s edition of Punching the Clock, I caught the scent of good will and tracked it like a bloodhound to the Toys for Tots’ headquarters on 90 North Broad St. in Norwich, to help out Chenango County’s aspiring St. Nicks.

Upon arriving at the erstwhile Rite Aid, I found myself in a large, well-lit room, among rows of tables buckling under the pressure from mounds of neatly displayed toys. After identifying my intentions, I was directed towards Roots & Wings administrator, Melinda Mandeville, who was enthralled in a phone conversation. Once she laid down the communication device, we began chatting about the Toys for Tots’ holiday season. Melinda informed me things had been going quite well, in fact even better than usual.

Since opening shop at the beginning of the month, the parents of around 1,500 children have come in and picked out Christmas presents for their excitable tykes. Even on the busy days though, things have been going smoothly, Melinda informed me. She attributed the organization’s new-found expediency to a recently adopted system of distribution the volunteer Santas are using this year. In years past, parents would compile a terse bio of their children and volunteers would use them to prepare bags of toys for the parents to come pick up. But, the system had over the years proven cumbersome and time consuming, so Melinda decided to innovate this year. The volunteers instead laid out the toys on tables, mimicking the stocked shelves of standard toy stores and the parents were given appointments to come in to “shop” for their little loved ones. Melinda told me the new system has so far been working like a charm. Though parents have been very happy with the change, the organizers have actually had to turn away volunteers, Melinda told me. I nodded, noting the half-dozen or so volunteers currently milling around with little to do.

With the new system change the volunteers’ jobs have also drastically been altered. They now have to stock the tables with fresh toys, organize the incoming donations, and escort the parents while they peruse their options.

By the time I showed my face Monday, most of the work had already been done. The tables were all filled to capacity with holiday delights and the bulk of the parents had already came through, Melinda told me, pointing out the two gargantuan binders bursting with signed registration forms. I couldn’t help but smile when I realized the binders were indicators of the bountiful number of Christmas presents already wrapped and clustering the bases of Christmas trees throughout the county.

Consequently Mandeville suggested I get some training on the off chance any of parents should happen by while I was volunteering. So Yvette Williams, a volunteer from Unison GE in Norwich, nabbed one of the sign up sheets, and posed as a parent, while I escorted her around the premises.

The parent Williams pretended to be had four children. The first child was a boy age 14, so pushing a shoping cart before me, I led Yvette over to the section which fit the child’s profile, and informed her she was allowed to pick out three toys. Testing me, Williams asked if she was allowed to pick toys from different sections. I answered, (as I had be instructed to beforehand), that she knew her child best, and was therefore more than welcome to peruse different sections of toys for “her” child.

After she selected three gifts for the boy, including a sweet model U.S. Navy battleship, I directed her to another section for “her” seven year old daughter. After she picked out another three toys, it was off to the toddler section, where Williams decided one of her infants had an acute fixation with all things turtle and made her selections accordingly. Just to mess with me a bit, she threw me a curve ball by dithering over her choices, putting one back, and taking another. Even so, Yvette told me she was actually going a lot faster then the parents usually do, who enjoy taking their time to make the perfect pick.

Once Williams had three toys for each of “her” four children, I corralled her over to a kiosk equipped with stuffed animals from which she snagged one for each faux kid. Then it was on to the Hess station, a tabled stacked high with collectable Hess trucks donated the previous year by the Hess Corporation. One of the other volunteers at Santa’s makeshift shop, had previously told me the Hess station had been a huge hit with the parents this year, and I could see why. The table was stacked to eye level with box upon box. With so many Hess trucks available, Toys for Tots have been able to give each family two for each of their children.

After we visited a table filled with books and another with stocking stuffers, it was time for me to prep Williams for her departure. I took a humongous box and began stuffing it with the contents of her cart. Despite its enormous dimensions, the box could not fit all of the toys along with all of the Hess trucks. I marvelled at the volume of Christmas gifts Toys for Tots was providing each family with and felt satisfied in the knowledge that literally thousands of children in Chenango County will have a fantastic Christmas thanks to the organization’s efforts, and the community’s generous spirit.

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