The Salvation Army, Carle toy drive provides families with holiday cheer

By Declan Harty

Santa Claus plans to come down the chute for all Champaign County residents this winter, with a little help from the donations of this year’s toy drive. 

The annual toy drive, which is made possible by The Salvation Army, Carle Foundation and WDWS/WHMS/WKIO radio, has been running since Nov. 14 and will end on Thursday. The toy drive will have an all-day final push for new, unwrapped toys, gifts and monetary or gift card donations on Wednesday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Carle Foundation’s outpatient location at 1802 S. Mattis Ave. in Champaign. 

The toy drive has been successful, said Mike Haile, vice president and general manager of WDWS/WHMS/WKIO radio and Advisory Board member for Champaign County’s Salvation Army. As of Tuesday, the event organizers said they would be able to provide donations for 980 families and 2,400 children, and that the numbers continue to grow. Now in its 29th year, the toy drive has continually grown in number of recipients each year.

“It is a need that is very much a need every year that keeps growing,” Haile said. “The community can have satisfaction in helping, and it is so easy to help in this drive.”

Haile said he believes that the toy drive provides children with the true meaning of giving, as it did with his children, who used to select the gifts that their family would donate. Haile, who has been involved in the toy drive for 28 of its 29 years, said the driving force behind the successful charity event is the Champaign County community. As the host of “The HMS Morning Show” on WHMS, Haile will be at the all-day Wednesday collection, giving away prizes to the first people who donate Wednesday morning. 

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    Having brought in 2,700 toys and more than $2,200 in monetary and gift card donations last winter, the event organizers hope to continue their success and continue to expand this season. They hope to provide each child with at least two toys through the toy drive. 

    The toy drive takes a variety of donations for children, who range in age from newborn to 15 years old. Accepted toys and donations include toy wagons, Easy Bake Ovens, Illini-themed clothing, CD players and radios, blankets and Lego sets. The complete list of donations that are being accepted for the toy drive is available on Carle Foundation Hospital’s website. 

    Joyce Meents, an administrative assistant at The Salvation Army, is also in charge of the Toy Shop, the toy donation center located in The Salvation Army at 2212 N. Market St. in Champaign.

    According to Meents, families signed up in early November to be recipients. On Dec. 18, 19 and 20, the families are invited to the Toy Shop and volunteers help the families select gifts for their children. As of Tuesday, the Toy Shop has approximately 10 volunteers, but they are in need of at least 20, Meents said.

    “To see the expression on the parents’ faces is worth a million dollars,” Meents said. “You have those who actually cry when they go through, and saying, ‘Without these toys, my child would not have any Christmas.’ And I just think that the idea of helping a family and each child so they will have something to open up on Christmas is probably the big thrill of everything — knowing that you were able to fulfill a dream and that a child has a toy to unwrap.”

    The theme of this year’s toy drive is “Earn your Elf Esteem.” The event organizers encourage donators to take a picture with elf cutouts located at Carle donation centers in Champaign County and share the photos via Facebook and Twitter with #ElfEsteem. 

    “The theme of ‘Earn your Elf Esteem’ is really designed to help the community find their holiday spirit,” said Kelli Anderson, Carle public relations specialist and coordinator of the toy drive. “We wanted to challenge everybody to remember that feeling that you get when you see one of your family members opening up a gift that you worked so hard to get for them.”

    Meents, who has been involved with the toy drive and the shop since its inception in 1984, described Christmas as a special time of the year for herself personally and having the ability to help others for Christmas is an amazing feat. 

    “It is a fulfillment knowing that all those families are going to have a good Christmas no matter what,” Anderson said. “Knowing that a child’s face will brighten up, knowing that he or she has a new toy to unwrap. It just gives you the energy to go on and wanting to see a child’s dream fulfilled.”

    Declan can be reached at [email protected].