GREENFIELD — The mother strolled out of J.B. Stephens Elementary School wheeling a brand new lavender bicycle.
A grateful grin stretched across her face. This Christmas, she’d finally replace her 10-year-old daughter’s rusty old bike.
As luck would have it, Toys for Tots gifted the family a purple bike, her daughter’s favorite color.
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The little girl is one of 350 underprivileged Hancock County kids to benefit from Saturday’s Toys for Tots charity toy drive that is sponsored annually by the Marine Corps Reserve and the United Christmas Service.
This year’s event was a collaborative effort between a number of charitable organizations in the community, including Cops4Kids, Changing Footprints and the Hancock Hope House, Event coordinator Christy Harpold said.
Toys for Tots takes plenty of planning; identifying families in need, organizing the event and collecting donations is a process that can take several months, Harpold said.
But the effort pays off every year on distribution day, when families pick up toys they’ll stick under the tree for Christmas morning.
In the the “toy room” Saturday morning, several tables were stacked high with toys of every kind: Puzzles, board games, bows and arrows, dolls, action figures, bicycles, skateboards and giant cardboard boxes overflowing with stuffed animals. Every last toy is given away by the end of the day, Harpold said.
A school social worker by day, Harpold knows there are many families across Hancock County who work hard but still struggle to make ends meet. When the holidays roll around, they’re burdened with a choice: pay the bills or buy Christmas presents.
That’s where Toys for Tots steps in, hoping to lighten the load and ensure every child has presents under the tree come Christmas morning, she said.
Since 1991, the U.S. Marine Corps. Reserve has sponsored Toys for Tots programs in communities across the country. During October, November and early December, the organization collects new, unwrapped toys to distribute as Christmas gifts to needy children.
In Hancock County, the program has provided presents for hundreds of children (infants through 12-year-olds) the past seven years.
Seeing the donations get freely distributed to those who need it most is Harpold’s favorite part of the program.
“The cool thing is, it comes from our county and goes back out to our county,” Harpold said. “That makes things really exciting, I think, to see what our county can do for each other.”
Andrea Mallory, another coordinator with Toys for Tots, said most of the volunteers who take part in the program come back to help every year.
The volunteers always have the most energy the first hour of the event, Mallory said. Everyone is excited to see the faces of the parents when they deliver the gifts to them.
“This is amazing, because we’ll give (the parents) maybe two or three bagfuls of toys for their kids, and they’re just overwhelmed,” Mallory said. “That’s the biggest thing for me.”
Dick Jefford, the local Marine Corps Reserve representative who helped Harpold kick start Hancock County’s Toys for Tots program, said his heart is always full watching all the donations pour in ahead of Christmas.
For some families living paycheck to paycheck, keeping food on the table and making rent is a challenge year-round, Jefford said. Celebrating Christmas can be challenging for a single mother working two or three part-time jobs.
Toys for Tots organizers couldn’t make a difference in the lives of those families without help from the community that always steps up, Jefford said.
“We are very successful because of the community we live in,” Jefford said. “Hancock County is incredibly generous and wonderful.”