Richardson students deliver busload of gifts to Toy Shelf

Richardson Elementary fifth-grade leadership group students collected toys from all the classrooms Monday afternoon. The first year of the toy drive was very successful. Pictured from left are Gift Naador, Jayden Stein, teacher Marissa Jagger, and Tammy Liu. (Linda Baumeister/Review)
Richardson Elementary fifth-grade leadership group students collected toys from all the classrooms Monday afternoon. The first year of the toy drive was very successful. Pictured from left are Gift Naador, Jayden Stein, teacher Marissa Jagger, and Tammy Liu. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

Richardson leadership students Laly Vue, Erin Sellie, Dylan Dihn, Ja’Sean Greene, Maya Fritz, and Charlie Crane count the donated toys and books and then rebag them. They would later learn that kids can pick out two toys each and are able to receive 10 books while touring the North St. Paul Toy Shelf. (Linda Baumeister/Review)
Charlie Crane, left, and Dylan Dihn carry yet another load as the Richardson Elementary entryway began overflowing with new and slightly used donated toys and books headed for the North St. Paul Toy Shelf. (Linda Baumeister/Review)
Charlie Crane, left, and Dylan Dihn carry yet another load as the Richardson Elementary entryway began overflowing with new and slightly used donated toys and books headed for the North St. Paul Toy Shelf. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

Heading into holiday season, some might envision Santa's elves in the North Pole making shiny new toys for all the good little girls and boys.

In North St. Paul, volunteers at a thriftier gift assembly line are also working hard to make sure no children go without gifts this month.

Forming a line from the back of a yellow school bus to the door of the Toy Shelf's storage facility on Nov. 23, fifth-graders from Richardson Elementary School unloaded more than 2,000 new and used toys and books that they collected from a week-long toy drive at their school.

Nearby, Toy Shelf founders Norma Worm and Dawn Peterson directed traffic, so the items could be sorted while all hands were on deck.

Later, the toys will be cleaned up and outfitted with new batteries before being displayed on shelves at the back of Specialty Floral, 2553 E. Seventh Ave., awaiting their new homes.

"I feel great because I just know a lot of kids are getting toys that can't afford toys," says 11-year-old Charles Crane as his classmates continue to unload the gifts. "I think we all have too [many] toys. We should give some away out of kindness."

Nearly 9,000 recipients

This year, Worm says the Toy Shelf has already served more than 500 North St. Paul, Maplewood and Oakdale needy children; and they anticipate reaching another 200 to 300 before year's end. Looking at a running total of children served since the charity began 2005, Worm says they'll break 9,000 this holiday season. That number includes repeat customers, as each recipient is allowed to choose one new and one used toy per child, with a maximum of six toys per family, every 60 days.

Many low-income families using the Toy Shelf are referred there by the volunteer staff at the North St. Paul Area Food Shelf.

The holiday rush, from Nov. 1 through Dec. 25, is treated as a special time frame during which families can visit once. The Toy Shelf is open every Tuesday and Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., with extended holiday hours beginning Dec. 7 Monday through Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Worm says shopping is limited to parents and guardians only. A picture ID and current utility bill are required to verify residence.

Outside of these parameters, the Toy Shelf has largely survived off the sheer willpower of its volunteers and generosity of anonymous donors — constantly adapting to the evolving needs of the community it serves.

The idea to start the Toy Shelf came out of a city initiative to inspire civic engagement projects back when morale was low during the reconstruction of Highway 36, Worm says.

"It just popped into my head. I knew it was a God-given idea," she says, adding she went to the city to apply for a permit and was told none were needed. Instead, city staff offered to put a donation drop-box inside City Hall.

Help from the community quickly put the Toy Shelf on the map. Mary Rogers, owner of Specialty Floral, offered up the back of her store and donation boxes were added at the Oakdale City Hall and Discovery Center, Anchor Bank and elsewhere.

In its first six months of operation in 2005, the Toy Shelf served 404 children. Today, the toys are stored at a city-owned vacant building down the block because the Toy Shelf itself isn't very large.

Monetary donations are used to buy batteries and age-appropriate gifts for teenagers, like toiletries, alarm clocks and sports equipment.

"It looks like we have more than we could ever get rid of," Worm says, gesturing at the shelves of building blocks, stuffed animals, car racing sets and board games on display. "But it's not true."

During the holiday season, they tend to get lots of new gifts. But the volunteers make sure used toys are just as shiny when they're put on display.

"They're so grateful," Peterson says, noting the little kids could care less if the toy they lock eyes on is in a new package or not.

'Kids sharing with kids'

Richardson students put the Toy Shelf's slogan, "kids sharing with kids," into action. Members of the Richardson Leadership Council decided they wanted to do something that would help children who don't have access to toys this holiday season, their advisor Marissa Jagger says.

"They are super creative and resourceful children," she says. "This group is always working on giving back to our community."

She helped them connect with the Toy Shelf and set up a school-wide toy drive, then let their ambition steer the rest of the project.

On Nov. 23, they collected all the toys at the school and counted them in less than an hour, loaded them onto the school bus, and sorted all the toys at the storage site while Worm and Peterson scrambled to make room for the largest donation they had ever received.

Ahmed Ahmed, 10, says he donated some books, notebooks and a toy motorcycle that his grandfather had given him. He's content knowing all these items will make some other child happy.

"Some kids have too much toys," he says. "But you don't want to throw it away. You want to give it to someone who doesn't have it because you want them to have fun as well."

Jagger says students and parents rallied together to pull off such a successful toy drive, noting even students who don't have much donated toys.

The students may choose to do the toy drive again next year, she says.

At that rate, it appears the Toy Shelf's biggest challenge will be housing a potentially larger donation next year.

Looking around the storage facility, Jayden Stein, 11, says with a smile, "I just don't know how you guys are gonna fit all of it."

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.

 

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