Bob Loring isn’t Santa Claus. Yet he has some 250 elves at his disposal, and he seems pretty jolly about his job.
“I’m the head elf,” Loring said. “It’s a thrill. Personally it’s so rewarding. I get to work with and be around the neatest people in Pasco County.”
The retired Marine doesn’t look like Kris Kringle, either, but he does share a common goal with the Christmas character. With the help of elves (volunteers), he distributes toys to boys and girls during the holiday season.
The difference is that Loring does it in real life.
Loring heads up the local Toys For Tots chapter, part of a national program that distributes toys to needy children run by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve for more than 65 years. He took the helm back in 1999, and in his first year, the group distributed toys for nearly 400 children in the Dade City area.
But he knew it wasn’t enough.
To expand, Toys For Tots would have to increase the number of communities it serves. Most people who donate want the recipients to live in their area, Loring said. As a result, they’ve broadened their efforts to provide a happy holiday to children in Zephyrhills, Land O’ Lakes and Wesley Chapel, as well.
The donations have gone up, too. Loring expects to distribute toys to around 4,000 children this year. And the method of distributing them is almost as important as the donations themselves.
Toys For Tots relies on school counselors to identify needy children and families. Then, instead of simply distributing bags of gifts based on age and gender, a parent or guardian will go to a local center where one of the elves helps them choose from the available toys for each child in the family.
Every recipient receives a couple of bigger gifts as well as some stocking stuffers to make sure they have a few things to open. Someone who knows them handpicks them all.
This method ensures the right gift goes to the right recipient, Loring said, because the parent or guardian has a good idea what each child would like. Some children might be more or less advanced for their age, and finding suitable gifts requires more than guesswork based on how old they are.
Letting a parent or guardian choose the gifts themselves provides another benefit: dignity.
“I want the parent, first of all, to be treated with kindness, to be brought into the Christmas spirit,” Loring said. “We’re not here to make people feel uncomfortable that they’re asking us to help them.”
By playing a role in deciding what their children receive, the experience is more in line with traditional gift giving.
While the organization has provided toys for decades, Toys For Tots had to adjust with the times. They still have collection boxes at various locations and businesses where people can donate new, unwrapped toys. And they still have their annual toy drive with the National Association of Letter Carriers, where residents leave toys by their mailboxes and the letter carriers pick them up on their postal routes.
The problem is that fewer people know about it.
The U.S. Postal Service previously allowed Toys For Tots distribute free mailers to each resident, letting them know when the drive would take place. But a few years ago they stopped providing that benefit due to costs, Loring said, so his organization has had to get more creative in getting the word out on when to leave toys for their letter carriers.
He admits that current donations would be even higher if not for the mailer setback, because many residents don’t know exactly when it occurs.
Still, with some assistance from the national Toys For Tots organization and mostly local donations, the chapter provides presents for thousands of local children each year. And with some help from other groups, Loring has built a network of add-ons to accompany the holiday presents.
For example, faith-based organizations and Rotary Club sponsor Food For Tots and Skivvies For Tots, offering food and clothing for those in need. And down the road, Loring would like to add Shoes For Tots as well.
But for now, Loring will settle for another successful toy drive for needy area families. And in doing so, it also will translate into a happier holiday for those volunteers who find it can be better to give than to receive.
“My elves get more out of this than the families we help. That is true,” Loring said. “They come away with the Christmas spirit and they take it home. It’s magnificent.”
The Letter Carriers’ toy drive is set for Dec. 6.
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