A giant American flag flew high in the air over the parking lot at the Shoprite Square off of Balltown Road on Saturday, suspended from the top of a Niskayuna Fire District No. 1 ladder truck.
About a dozen volunteers were gathered below, collecting toys for the 8th annual Toys For Tots stuff-the-truck event that each year collects new and unwrapped toys for Capital District families in need.
“We’ve only been here two hours and the boxes are almost filled. Even in inclement weather people come out,” said Anthony Kaczmarek, vice-president of Sondra’s Fine Jewelry, as light rain fell beyond two pop-up tents volunteers were standing under.
Sondra’s teamed up with the Niskayuna Fire District No. 1, Marine Corps and the American Legion Riders this year to collect toys in the program’s Capital District region, which actually spans 14 counties, according to Marine reservist Chris Croteau.
Toys For Tots was established by the Marine Corps in 1947, and Croteau has volunteered for the program the last four years. He said the Capital District Toys for Tots program was the most successful in the country last year, distributing 220,000 toys to children by Christmastime.
“The people that support us year in and year out, that’s why we’re here,” said Croteau, noting that all of the toys collected in the region go to children who live in the region. “And they understand that it stays in our community.”
Croteau added that 97 percent of monetary donations made to Toys For Tots goes directly into buying toys, with the remainder going to the cardboard boxes the toys are collected in and gas for support vehicles.
The program collects new and unwrapped toys for boys and girls up to age 14 from October to Dec. 18. The toys are brought to a warehouse where volunteers sort them for distribution by age and gender.
On Saturday, a woman drove up to the Toys For Tots tent and dropped off a check for $100.
“She does that every year — she’s amazing,” said Kaczmarek, who sees the impact that the program has on families in need every year. “It sounds simplistic but a lot of times it comes down to a decision between food and a toy.”
Sondra Stephens of Sondra’s Fine Jewelry said support in the region for the program is immense.
“No matter what nationality or religion, I think people know that children deserve a toy around the holidays,” she said.
At the end of the day the volunteers had collected nearly a dozen boxes of toys, which overflowed with items like dolls, Play-Doh, Legos, remote-controlled trucks, Crayons and art supplies.
“It’s amazing, we don’t do it for anything but the kids,” said Stephens.
Kaczmarek said as with most years there’s a particular need for gifts for girls in the 10-14 age range.
“Nobody knows what to get a 14-year-old girl,” he said with a laugh. He tells people that jewelry making kits, makeup kits and art supplies are good choices.
More information and requests for toys can be found at toysfortots.org.