TAMPA — Thousands of area children might go without toys this holiday season thanks to a Grinch-like move from the Postal Service.
Normally this time of year, boxes of gifts pack the Toys for Tots warehouses. Santa's helpers separate Barbie dolls from Tonka trucks. The mood is fa-la-la.
But not this season. Toy donations are so low, Toys for Tots officials worry they won't have enough gifts for the estimated 40,000 boys and girls on their lists.
"I'm losing sleep," said Herb Donica, chairman of the committee that supports the Toys for Tots campaign in Hillsborough County. "All of our core people are pulling their hair out wondering what we are going to do.''
The post office may have saved the day in A Miracle on 34th Street, but Donica says it crippled this year's Toys for Tots campaigns.
Every year, the charity partners with the Postal Service for a Letter Carriers Toy Drive in early December. Postal customers leave new, unwrapped toys at their mailboxes, and letter carriers collect them for Toys for Tots.
To promote the regional event, the Postal Service has delivered for free a flier with the details. For years, about 2 million have been mailed to households in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, each with their own Toys for Tots campaigns run by the U.S. Marines Corps, reservists and civilian supporters.
About a month before this year's toy drive, charity officials got word that the Postal Service would no longer distribute the flier. Local postal officials had been using a permit for official Postal Service business to deliver the flier without postage. But this year, in light of the Postal Service's financial problems, officials wouldn't allow it.
The change sent Toys For Tots scrambling. They took out a few ads, including in the Flyer, the advertising mailer that in recent years printed the toy drive fliers for free. But the efforts weren't enough.
"People didn't know about it,'' said Ed Zaleski, assistant coordinator for Hillsborough's Toys for Tots. "In the past it has been wildly successful. I can remember last year seeing truck after truck coming in loaded with toys. This was really disappointing.''
To make matters worse, he said, two toy drives planned during Tampa Bay Lightning games were canceled because of the hockey lockout.
This year, letter carriers collected about 4,000 toys in Hillsborough and 10,000 in Pinellas, down from 20,000 last year in Hillsborough and 35,000 in Pinellas. East Pasco, which registered more needy families this year based on the toy drive's past success, collected 4,000 toys, a quarter of what was expected.
Charity officials lament more than just the loss of the toys letter carriers picked up. The Postal Service's flier distribution had provided a massive dose of publicity that lasted all season long.
"We get a lot of people who say, 'I missed my letter carrier, but here's your toy,' '' Donica said. "It makes people aware of the toy drive.''
Had it not been for the little advertising that was done, the situation would have been even worse, said Alan Jones, a longtime volunteer for the Pinellas County Tots for Tots. The group distributes its toys on Friday and Saturday and, as of Tuesday, had collected about half of the 130,000 toys needed.
"We know that the economy is a factor . . . and we really appreciate every toy that comes in,'' he said. "It's just sad that we won't be able to meet the needs this year.''
Mail carriers felt awful when their sleighs came back half-empty. Tampa area postal union president Alan Peacock said he asked the district manager to reconsider delivering the fliers but got scrooged. Adding an extra piece in their mailbags isn't such a burden, Peacock said, especially when you consider the benefits.
"I think it's pretty pathetic,'' Peacock said. "They shouldn't have made that big of a decision without realizing the consequences. This is about putting something for kids under the Christmas tree.''
For the Postal Service, it came down to money. The federal agency ended the 2012 fiscal year with a record net loss of $15.9 billion, compared with $5.1 billion last year. To ask the Postal Service to absorb the cost of mailing a flier just wasn't financially prudent, officials said.
"The Postal Service is a business, and at our lowest cost rate for a flier at 14.5 cents each, the total postage would have been $650,000 had a private organization had to pay,'' said Debbie Fetterly, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service Suncoast District covering most of Florida.
Still, the commitment to Toys For Tots remains strong, she said. This year, the Postal Service started picking up toys across the entire Suncoast District, resulting in an additional 2 million addresses not previously part of the toy drives.
That's nice, but it doesn't help Michelle McRae, manager of the Toys for Tots warehouse in a former Winn-Dixie along Gandy Boulevard in Tampa. Scanning the empty boxes earlier this week, she pondered trying to reschedule toy drop-off days in the hopes of getting more gifts. Idle volunteers went home early.
"We're panicking,'' she said. "We're about 100,000 toys short.''
And requests keep coming in: From the woman who called from her hospital bed asking for toys for her kids. From the mother suffering from breast cancer who wants gifts for her 7-year-old with brain cancer.
East Pasco coordinator Bob Loring braced for low donations and started making public pleas the day after the toy drive to every service club and media outlet in town. He scaled back the number of gifts per child and hoped he could serve everyone.
The community responded enthusiastically with toys and cash to buy more gifts. Just this week, he received $1,000 from the Kiwanis Club of Dade City and $6,000 from the Zephyrhills Moose Lodge.
"We're dealing with a Christmas miracle,'' he said. "I hope we're not going to turn anybody away this year.''
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.