It was the grown-ups whose faces radiated awe and holiday cheer Saturday morning as "elves" ushered them around the annual Toys for Tots distribution.
Many of those who came — representing some 2,200 needy Hernando County children — paused with big eyes and open mouths as they surveyed the scene in the cafeteria at Central High School.
The vast outpouring of gifts by local residents will help ensure that each youngster will have something to smile about after Santa's clandestine visit to wherever they live.
The donations included bright and musical toys, books, perplexing and challenging games, whizzing and flashing electronics, babylike and porcelain-faced dolls, silver-chrome bicycles and electric scooters that will putter up to 10 mph.
Other folks donated cash and gift cards to the sponsoring Marine Corps League Spring Hill Detachment 708, enabling the Marines and their helpers to buy at least one fulfillment on each child's wish list.
For some of the adults who were gathering gifts for recipients, the stroll through Santa's showroom was bittersweet — chagrin that they had to resort to charity for their children's happiness, but gratitude that good cheer was at hand.
Angela Ferrer of Spring Hill, a mother of seven with three still at home, was overwhelmed as an elf-hatted Navy ROTC volunteer from Central High helped her wheel out a 20-inch Huffy rocket bicycle for her son, Henry Fernandez.
"He thinks he's going to get socks," Ferrer said of her 12-year-old son.
Ferrer's big plastic sack also held Barbie dolls and puzzles for 8-year-old Maylin Fernandez.
The youngsters' father is able to work only part-time after an accident, Ferrer explained, and she suffers from an ailing back.
Another Navy ROTC cadet carried a big box containing a toddler-size basketball hoop destined for Savion Sims, 3. His mother, Sharonda Sims of Spring Hill, laughed as she related that he wouldn't be getting the No. 1 item on his wish list — a roller coaster.
"But he's crazy about basketball," she said.
Sims also registered to receive gifts for daughters Aryal, 5, and Aryana, 6 months.
"I kind of know what they like," she said as she chose Barbie dolls for the elder girl and small toys — "light-up stuff and toys that make noise" — for the younger.
The mother said she was relying on Toys for Tots "because I don't make enough" as a housekeeping staffer at Spring Hill Regional Hospital. Their father "is a stay-at-home dad, the best stay-at-home dad," Sims said, adding that he operates a recording studio in their modest duplex home.
Marine Corps League Detachment commander Marion Kelley said donations this year were down by 45 percent from 2011.
The poor response to the annual U.S. Postal Service collection day by letter carriers was the major reason, he said. USPS officials maintained the budget-strapped agency couldn't afford this year to put postage-free fliers in mailboxes advertising the day when carriers would pick up donations left at mailboxes.
To make up the anticipated shortfall, Kelley said the Marines carried personal pitches to local communities and businesses. What he labeled "big help" came from Glen Lakes; Timber Pines; the Wellington at Seven Hills; Monster Transmission, which sponsored a bike run; and Texas Roadhouse, which sponsored a golf tournament with the cooperation of Hernando Oaks.
Kelley also heaped praise on the Walmart Distribution Center in Ridge Manor and local Walmart stores.
"I have nothing but kudos for them," he said. "They gave so many nice toys."
And the Walmart Foundation provided a $1,000 grant to the effort.
Also, Kelley said, the Marines collected more tricycles than requested, but not enough bicycles. Walmart made a trade to meet children's wishes.
The local Marine Corps League's Toys for Tots bike chairman, Don Ward, noted that bicycle recipients are perhaps the most exuberant over their gifts.
"They say, 'That's for me?' They go out the door with big smiles on their faces, and they always say 'Merry Christmas,' " Ward said. "After months and months of work, that makes it all worthwhile."
Toys for Tots recipient families are checked for income eligibility and cross-referenced with other holiday gift-gifting organizations to ensure the beneficiaries aren't double-dipping, Kelley noted.
This year, for each child through age 12, Toys for Tots provided three toys, two stuffed animals, one book, one game and three stocking stuffers. Bicycles and other pricey gifts counted as more than one toy.
Despite what co-chairwoman Ellen Ward described as a "mind-boggling" display of gifts Saturday at Central, Kelley worried it might not be enough.
At midmorning, he said, "If it means I have to go out and buy toys at 2 p.m., we'll go out and get something for every kid. That's what Marines do."
At the end of the day, Ward reported, "We came right down to the wire. We had a few families that didn't get age-appropriate things. Ten- to 12-year-olds are hard."
On Monday morning, Kelley and buying chairwoman Lorraine Jensen went on a shopping trip for those older kids.
"Everybody got taken care of," Ward said.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]