Though nothing about the past year has been what would be considered “normal” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the mission of the Steele County Toys for Tots has held strong: every child deserves Christmas.
“This year, it’s going to feel strange,” said Don Overlie, the coordinator of the local Toys for Tots, a branch of the national U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots program with the objective to collect and distribute new and unwrapped toys for needy children at Christmas time. “With COVID-19 and how it spreads, we are just going to have to do things differently.”
The biggest adjustment for Toys for Tots, which has had an operation in Steele County for 38 years, is the distribution will be shifting to a drive-thru only process. In the past, parents were able to walk through the shopping area set up at Trinity Lutheran Church in Owatonna to select gifts for their children. This year, the gifts will be pre-bagged by volunteers and delivered with no contact to the shopper.
“State guidelines say we just can’t have the number of people that we would need to do it the way we have in the past,” Overlie said of the distribution. “Secondly, most of our volunteers are adults beyond the age of 50, so we’re not going to risk it.”
Overlie said everyone involved in the distribution, from the volunteers to the recipients, will also be required to wear face masks. He added that distribution will be spread across four days this year instead of three to allow for the drive-thru method, according to Overlie, and that the volunteers will bag gifts based on what is on the applications.
“It’s going to be age-appropriate toys, so if there’s a 6-year-old on the application we will find a toy that would be for someone of that age,” Overlie said. “I’m guessing there will be fewer books, much fewer clothing items, and sadly there will be no bicycles this year.”
Because of the amount of time and manpower it takes into assembling the bicycles donated in the past to Toys for Tots, as well as the importance of having the adult selecting the right-sized bicycle for their child, Overlie said there was no way to handle the bicycles this holiday season.
Another change this Toys for Tots season will be the shopping, which Overlie said they are trying to do as little of as possible. Thanks to a surprise donation in January from the Owatonna High School winter fundraiser, Overlie said they had funds they weren’t anticipating heading into the holidays. Using those funds, Overlie has already done some shopping through wholesalers connected with the national organization to ensure a certain amount of toys and gifts will be available for local kids in need.
“I’ve purchased more toys this year than ever before from vendors tied in with our national organization,” Overlie said. Despite that option, though, Overlie said donations from the local community are still a vital part of their operation.
“We would rather have people select toys locally and drop them in our boxes,” Overlie said. “If we are given cash we will spend it, but receiving physical items would be ideal this year.”
While Toys for Tots serves all ages of youth, Overlie said the 8 to 12-year-old range, specifically with girls, seems to be not only the biggest age group they serve, but the hardest to shop for. Over his last 20 years volunteering with the group, he said they seem to always be able to serve teenagers and the younger children easily.
“Any age that people would like to buy for, that’s great,” Overlie said. “But for some reason the 8- to 12-year-olds seems to be where we really struggle, for both boys and girls, but leaning slightly toward the girls.”
On top of all these changes, Overlie said there are two things that will be missed the most during this year’s Toys for Tots campaign. One will be the face and support of the man who brought the organization to the county, Jerry Shore. Shore died in May.
The other thing Overlie says will be missed this year is the intimate human connection with the recipients.
“There will be no physical contact, which means they won’t be able to give us hugs and we won’t be able to give them hugs,” Overlie said. “That will be strange.”