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Pinellas Toys for Tots volunteers work to sort through donations

LARGO

The mountain of toys was like a scene from even the most imaginative kid's Christmas Eve dream — toys of every stripe, for boys and girls of every taste and type — stacked halfway to the ceiling of a warehouse, 10 feet high, 20 feet across.

There was no method to the heap, simply plastic bags filled to the brim, some tearing under the strain of toy tractors and puzzles, board games with buzzers, books and movies enough to make the Toys "R" Us giraffe maybe a little bit dizzy.

But no Santa or elves were at work to construct the toy-wrought tower. No, these helpers were of a different kind.

The good people of north Pinellas County were to thank, for they had put these gifts in Toys for Tots donation boxes at retailers from Largo to Tarpon Springs.

But the effort to give the poorest children of the county presents on that one special morning fast upcoming didn't end there. In fact, for a batch of volunteers, the real work had just begun.

For the dozens lending a hand, the day began at 9 a.m., with cold wind nipping outside the empty warehouse space behind a Staples off U.S. 19 in Pinellas Park.

They came from many walks of life — retired teachers, grandparents, firefighters and a couple of dozen employees of the Home Shopping Network on community service leave from their jobs at the TV channel.

They listened to their leader, 60-year-old Army vet Robin Fancher, who has been in the toy-sorting business for 24 years.

Unlike toys from the North Pole, playthings made in China can be more hazardous. He briefed the bunch on what to remove from the piles.

"We've got to put all the jewelry off to the side and check it out," Fancher said. "A lot of it comes from China and is made from stuff more toxic than lead."

Also off Christmas lists: X-rated movies that grinches sometimes drop in the boxes and toy cell phones that can damage sensitive young ears.

Then came the bags, dumped on a massive array of tables, and put into boxes separated by age and gender.

Footballs for boys of 10.

Dolls for girls under 6.

Big ticket items, like bikes and the like, are separated into time groups — so when parents come through to select toys, not all the good ones are snapped up instantly.

Even the toys that may appear ungiveable at first are repurposed. The Largo-based detachment of the North Pinellas Marine Corps. League, which is the group responsible for organizing the drive here, has experience.

Marine Reservists have been gathering toys for children since 1947.

"Every bit of this will go to an organization," Fancher told the volunteers. "Loose crayons, don't worry about loose crayons. Put them in a box and we'll give them to the R' Club, a nonprofit child care organization.

Fazil Ali, 42, is one of the volunteers. Normally, he would be working on the Home Shopping Network's fraud prevention team.

But Monday, he was wheeling a dolly back and forth, organizing boxes of toys.

"It's a little physical work — but it takes care of the mental stress I have at work," Ali said. "It's quite impressive that there is still more to come."

Indeed, as members of the letter carriers union bring in more toys from around Pinellas, the number of toys to be sorted will grow.

Marine Corps League Toys for Tots chairman Pete Kristall said the organization will deliver "no less than five toys to 8,000 families in our jurisdiction."

Residents of Pinellas County who live south of Ulmerton Road, the unofficial dividing line between Kristall's chapter and the St. Petersburg League detachment, will be treated to similar toy donations at a warehouse at 2891 Gateway Centre Parkway in Pinellas Park.

And on Saturday, families who have already been vetted by Pinellas County schools for financial need will arrive and receive a bit of Christmas cheer.

Despite high unemployment in Florida this year and last, Kristall said in 2009 that the toy availability was high — and this year appears to be just as bountiful.

"It was fantastic last year. We don't know what happened," he said. "North Pinellas County came through, absolutely."

Dominick Tao can be reached at dtao@sptimes.com or (727) 580-2951.

Fast facts

How to donate

To donate to Toys for Tots, many retailers such as Publix display donation boxes. Also, toys can be dropped off at the warehouse at 10900 U.S. 19 N in Clearwater or 2891 Gateway Centre Parkway in Pinellas Park.

Pinellas Toys for Tots volunteers work to sort through donations 12/14/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 14, 2010 5:26pm]

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