Toys For Tots drives underway in the region

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SCHENECTADY — The weeks leading up to Christmas are an opportunity to show love and charity to those in need, and the Toys For Tots toy drive is one way to do that.

Locations throughout the area are collecting new, unwrapped toys on behalf of the United States Marine Corps annual appeal. For the 9th year, Sondra’s Fine Jewelry on Upper Union Street will host its Cruisin’ for Tots event in the LT’s Grill parking lot, off Nott Street in Niskayuna’s Shop Rite Plaza.

As in years past, the event includes hot cocoa and pastries, along with firetrucks for kids to climb on. Of course, there will also be donation boxes.

“It’s our honor to help the Marines who help us and others,” said Sondra Stephens, owner and president of Sondra’s Fine Jewelry. “It’s about providing dignity for people in need.”

Every year, Stephens and her son, company vice president Anthony Kaczmarek, organize Toys for Tots efforts. They distribute donation boxes to businesses and retailers throughout the Capital Region and host a collection box in their own store.

Sondra’s store alone regularly takes in more than 10,000 toys through the annual drive, which starts during the Upper Union Street Fall Festival and continues through Christmas Eve.

This year, the anticipated need for toys is greater than 220,000 for the Capital Region alone.

“The need gets greater every year,” Kaczmarek said.

Among the most needed toys this year are items for girls between the ages of 8 and 14. While they may be too old to play with Barbie or baby dolls, Kaczmarek and Stephens said arts and crafts kits, jewelry making kits, art supplies, makeup or books make great gifts.

In addition to organizing Toys For Tots efforts, Stephens and Kaczmarek are also collecting monetary donations, blankets and winter apparel. While the Marines hand out the toys, community volunteers help distribute the winter wear at the Toys For Tots donation sites.

After the Cruisin’ For Tots event, all of the collected toys will be sorted at a local warehouse and, next week, will be loaded onto an Amtrak train that will leave Albany at 8 a.m. Saturday, making its first stop in Saratoga Springs at 8:55 a.m.

While in the Spa City, the train (officially called the United States Marine Corps Dunkin Donuts Amtrak Norfolk Southern Toys for Tots Holiday Train) will be dedicated to Stephens and her shop for their collection efforts over the years.

“It’s a big honor,” Stephens said. “We’re just a vessel to get the word out about the program.”

Anyone who chooses to drop off a new, unwrapped toy at Sondra’s Fine Jewelry can also enter a raffle to win a custom necklace featuring a diamond and gold stars, in honor of the armed forces. The winner will be announced on Christmas Eve.

While donations of cash can be made online, Stephens and Kaczmarek encourage people to donate to local efforts because the toys and money raised in the Capital Region stays in the Capital Region.

Stephens and Kaczmarek also warn to look out for scams or donation boxes that appear to be an official Toys For Tots box but may not be. The pair suggests going to the Toys For Tots website (toysfortots.org) for the official list of drop-off sites.

Mother and son say they continue to be amazed by the generosity of the community. They reported seeing someone donate the last bits of cash in their wallet or making small sacrifices like foregoing a morning cup of coffee and instead spending the cash on a toy for a child in need.

“It’s more than giving a toy,” Stephens said. “It’s making a child feel wanted and like somebody cares. We want children to feel that they are not forgotten or left behind.”

For more information on how to donate, visit toysfortots.org or call Sondra’s Fine Jewelry at 518.372.5853.