A constable of the Peel Regional Police’s 22 Division was on patrol in Mississauga, Ont., shortly before Christmas in 1993. The problem of what to do for children whose parents could not afford presents weighed heavily on him. He decided to collect as much Canadian Tire money from friends and colleagues as he could, then he paid a visit to his nearest Canadian Tire store.
From such modest beginnings, the Toys for Tots Program has grown dramatically. And despite rough economic times, more than $900,000 worth of toys were donated or purchased in 2008—$150,000 more than in 2007 and double the amount from just three years ago. The figure is expected to climb over the $1 million mark this year.
Success brings its challenges and the police soon realized that while they were effective at collecting funds, they needed an agency to assist in the distribution.
This is where The Salvation Army came into play. “We were singled out for our reputation,” explains Dianne Falkinson, program developer and Toys for Tots representative at the Mississauga community and family services centre. “They knew we were out there working in the community, and they knew they could trust us to get the toys to those kids who really needed them, and to do it in an efficient manner.”
“Like The Salvation Army, we identify a need and we serve it,” says Constable Kerry Vandrish, the Peel Regional Police chair of Toys for Tots. “Community-based assistance is what both organizations are about.”
How It’s Done
Throughout six weeks in November and December, Peel Regional Police officers volunteer their time, collecting Canadian Tire coupons and money from store clients. “Even though five cents or 10 cents of Canadian Tire money may not seem like much,” says Constable Vandrish, “when it adds up, we’re talking thousands of dollars.”
Area schools and businesses run their own sub-campaigns in conjunction with Toys for Tots. “It’s unbelievable to see a company’s front office stuffed with toys,” says Constable Holly Faulkner, assistant chair. Individual donations can also be dropped off at local malls, fire halls and other locations across Mississauga.
Two police officers as well as a police cadet are freed up from their regular duties during this period to deal with the paperwork, man the phones and co-ordinate assignments. Almost 600 officers volunteer their time collecting Canadian Tire money in the stores, assisting in toy-bagging and participating in special events, such as the charity hockey game hosted by Sheridan College. Then, over the course of six Wednesdays, six police as well as Salvation Army volunteers make early morning runs to Canadian Tire stores.
How are the toys chosen? “When we’ve interviewed families in need, we’ve also inquired about the children’s interests—favourite TV shows, hobbies and so on,” explains Falkinson. “With these lists, we tailor the gifts to the children. It’s a lot more work, but it’s worth it.” Thousands of dollars are spent purchasing the toys that will brighten the hearts of thousands of children at Christmas.
“We’re Here to Help”
“Last year in the region of Peel, we helped 7,000 children,” says Falkinson. She speculates that many more families who are struggling could be helped if people were more aware of the service offered by the Army. “We’ve tried quite a bit of advertising over the last couple of years to make people understand that this is for everybody,” she notes. “If you are financially struggling this year, we’re here to help.”
Though much of their work takes place behind the scenes, both constables have seen the joy on the faces of children when they drop off presents at shelters and hospitals all over Mississauga in time for Christmas Eve. “Nothing beats seeing how happy they are,” says Constable Faulkner.
“We received a letter last year from a gentleman who was incarcerated,” Falkinson goes on. “His family was living in our community, and even in his time of incarceration, his concern was for his children and his wife. But he knew that if he contacted us, we’d make sure his children would not go without toys.”
A more serious case occurred a couple of years ago. A family was living with a husband struggling with addictions. The day before Christmas Eve, he’d sold everything in their apartment—including all of the toys they had received through Toys for Tots—to feed his habit. “He’d even sold their Christmas tree,” adds Falkinson. “The mother called us in tears. We had volunteers go and pack up all their belongings, and we moved the mother and her kids to a new apartment on Christmas Eve—complete with new toys under a new tree.”
A Matter of Trust
Why do these police officers and Army members give so much of their time to this campaign?
“I have three children of my own who have never wanted for anything at Christmas,” says Constable Vandrish. “But I’ve been on call to houses where children do need help, who don’t even have a matching pair of shoes to their name. I woke up one day and realized, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I’ve been a part of Toys for Tots for eight years.”
“We dedicate a lot of our time from September to the end of January to this,” adds Falkinson. “For us in family services, the rest of our mission must go on. It’s a very busy time of the year to add this to our existing duties, but it’s a true privilege to be able to meet with families and share God’s love through Christmas by giving.”
What makes Toys for Tots a success? “We couldn’t do this by ourselves,” asserts Constable Vandrish, “but neither could The Salvation Army. And as for the public, we would not exist without their generous donations.”
“It’s really a matter of trust,” concludes Falkinson. “The people who give the toys and the money trust us all to do the right thing with them, and we do.”