Holiday drive seeks space to stash toys

Toys for Tots needs 5,000 square feet for three weeks to distribute stuffed animals, games and bikes.

Published November 7, 2005

CLEARWATER - One local charity has a 5,000-square-foot Christmas gift on its wish list this year.

If it doesn't materialize soon, more than 4,000 underprivileged children will have nothing under the tree on Dec. 25.

The Marine Corps League of Clearwater is desperately searching for a suitable facility in mid or north Pinellas County to use as a distribution center for its annual Toys for Tots program next month.

One caveat: It must have 15- to 20-foot-high ceilings, at least 50 parking spaces and restrooms and be available by Dec. 1.

Pete Kristall, chairman of the program, stressed the arrangement would be temporary.

"We only have to store toys for about three weeks," he said, adding the league will carry the insurance and pay any utility bills incurred while the organization borrows the facility.

The temporary arrangement makes it difficult to find a donated space, because it takes commercial real estate property off the market for an inconvenient amount of time, Kristall said.

Two companies have expressed interest in offering space this year, but they have not reached an agreement with the Marine Corps League yet.

Since 1947, the Toys for Tots program has distributed presents to 159-million children nationally, Kristall said.

Locally, about 40,000 toys are amassed each year to be distributed to more than 1,000 families. Letter carriers kick off the drive by collecting toys on the first Saturday in December.

For years the organization has used the National Guard Armory building on Seminole Street to hand out new bicycles, stuffed animals, games, puzzles and other playthings to needy families screened by the Salvation Army.

But now the armory sits vacant while preparations are being made to renovate it into a parks and recreation complex.

"We are still in discussions with the National Guard and the state of Florida," said Kevin Dunbar, Clearwater's director of parks and recreation. "We hope within the next two months the city (will) enter a 50-year agreement with them."

If all goes according to plan, the building will contain offices and an electrical workshop, and serve as a storehouse for leisure services equipment.

Because it is no longer available for toy storage, the league must make other arrangements.

Kristall said more than 200 volunteers, ranging from Junior ROTC units to business executives, sorted and bagged toys last yea r. Each child receives at least 10 new toys and stocking stuffers.

For the participants, it can be rewarding work.

Fifteen years ago, during Jack Johnson's first year as a volunteer, he handed toys to a woman who had lost her job as a substitute teacher. Her husband had recently left her. With no money, she had no Christmas gifts to give her four young children.

After Johnson handed her the presents, she reached out and embraced him.

"When a lady gives you a big bear hug and has tears in her eyes, you're stuck," he said.

--Eileen Schulte can be reached at 727 445-4153 or schulte@sptimes.com