American Legion members played Santa last week as they set up, handed out and wrapped gifts for needy children as part of the Legion’s annual Toys for Kids event.
If not for the Toys for Kids event, many parents would not be able to give their children anything for Christmas said Becky LaDuke, co-organizer for the event. For many families, this is a holiday-changing event that saves parents from the stress and agony of a gift-less Christmas and trying to choose between set expenses and the holiday cheer.
“Some of them cry because they didn’t think they’d be able to do it,” said LaDuke. “One woman said she had been under a lot of stress for the last three weeks because she didn’t think she would be able to afford Christmas presents for her children. I just told her, ‘That’s why we are here.’”
For the annual event, the basement of the American Legion in McPherson was transformed into a child’s wonderland. Legos, remote control cars, board games, dolls, action figures, sports equipment and stuffed animals lined the walls.
“There’s about 2,400 items here, not including the stocking-stuffers and free stuffed-animals we give out at the end of the week,” said LaDuke. “There are a lot of items that come through here.”
Many of the toys distributed to needy families were donated during the Toys for Kids Toy Run, which was held on Nov. 29. The auction, which followed the toy run, raised $21,000 and was used to purchase additional toys and stocking stuffers.
The 2008 Toys for Kids event served about 250 families or 530 boys and girls under the ages of 14. LaDuke said the group had enough toys to allow parents to take one high-priced item like a bike, tri-cycle or boom-box, three additional toy choices and multiple stocking stuffers for each child.
Toys are separated into different groups by the suggested age and sex of the child receiving the gift. If a parent comes in looking for something specific, LaDuke said they will do what they can to make sure the toy is found.
“We use good sense and the parents use good sense on what they are going to get for their kids,” said LaDuke.
In 2000, the Legion took over the organizational duties of the Toys for Kids event from the National Guard. LaDuke said Legion has been able to keep the event going because they have had the needed facility and man-power.
“This will be our ninth year,” said LaDuke. “It's become a passion of mine and the three couples who help as a steering committee, we have been involved in the program from the beginning.”
To meet the needs of children over the age of 14, the McPherson Optimist Club purchases toys for teens between the ages of 15 and 18.
LaDuke said the Optimists fill a need for the older children of families that utilize the Legion’s services for younger children.
Though most people who take part in the Toys for Kids event have signed up through the McPherson County Resource Council, LaDuke said the organization always accept parents who recently lost their job or just missed the sign-up date.
“We take late comers so that no child goes without something,” said LaDuke. “Everything is totally free down here, nobody spends a nickel.”
If  the parents want, LaDuke said there are volunteer staff on hand to help the parents pick out gifts and also gift wrap them.
“Not everyone wants that, but for those that do, we offer help,” said LaDuke. “ I think we are the second largest toy store in McPherson.”
La Duke  said many of the families who take part in the Toys for Kids event, also go to the Kiwanis Club and Lyons Club Christmas Food Basket event. Glenn Gayer co-sponsor for the event, said this year they are planning to serve 317 families or 1,030 people. The event started at 8 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 20 and Gayer said it usually lasts until about 1 p.m.
“The event seems to grow every year,” said Gayer. “I think most of them are very appreciative of the food.”
This year, Gayer said they received more non-perishable items than ever collected. On Nov. 22, the Kiwanis club went door-to-door collecting perishable items and throughout the year, they also collected $5,000 to purchase the perishable items. The money and items are not just used in McPherson, but in all the towns in McPherson County.
“People really responded,” said Gayer. “It takes a lot of help to do this, not only today, but from all the contributions that we've had in the past weeks and months. It wouldn't be possible without the cooperation of the community.”
Though most people were able to report to the Park School warehouse on Saturday to pick up their food, the 21 families without reliable transportation received their food around 8:30 a.m. Saturday when club members delivered food packages to people’s doors.  Each food basket was filled with fruits, butter, milk, eggs, meat, potatoes and other perishable and non-perishable items.
“I think most of them are very appreciative of the food,” said Gayer. “We try to put a variety of food in and make it as nutrition’s as possible.”
This year, seven or eight Lyons Club members participated in the event, along with 20 McPherson Kiwanis club members and six or seven morning Kiwanis club members.
“We have to get all that help we can to get everything done,” said Gayer. “What would Christmas be without a good meal to go with it?”