Among the many touching stories Neil Leduke has from his years as Salvation Army Toy Mountain co-ordinator is that of a young woman who came to donate. In conversation, Neil discovered why Toy Mountain and The Salvation Army have a special place in her heart.
“Her family were newcomers to Canada,” Neil explains. “That Christmas, they had nowhere to turn.” An acquaintance suggested The Salvation Army might offer them assistance. And when it did, they found a community of new friends.
“As a child,” Neil says, “she remembers the Christmas gifts her family were given and her own new toy, but what she remembers most was her parents smiling.
“Years have gone by and she is now in a position to give back, and that is what she did by launching her gift drive for Toy Mountain, so that other children would have a Christmas full of joy like the one she remembers so fondly.
“That’s the magic of Toy Mountain.”
Building the Mountain
What started as a network of media outlets in the Ottawa area coming together during the Christmas season to give back to the community has now spread to cities across Canada, including Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto.
The one constant is The Salvation Army’s involvement—the base of the mountain, as it were.
“Each year, more and more people see the good work being done in partnership with The Salvation Army,” says Neil, interim national director of marketing and communications at The Salvation Army’s territorial headquarters in Toronto. “It’s a way of giving back to your community, putting a smile on a child’s face this Christmas—and building a mountain of toys!”
Collecting more than 150,000 toys is no small undertaking. The effort starts five weeks before Christmas as families across the country start dropping off new toys at selected Toy Mountain locations. (Donations can also be made online.)
“This face-to-face time is an opportunity for The Salvation Army to say ‘thank you,’ ” says Neil. “Seeing the smiles on the faces of kids and parents when they’re donating, or business people when they present a cheque or a van full of toys, is priceless. Without these individuals, families and corporations coming together, there would be no Toy Mountain.”
One of those people is CTV Toronto’s weather anchor Tom Brown. Each year Tom spearheads CTV Toronto’s annual Toy Mountain campaign, and he has been involved since 2005. His enthusiastic participation to make Christmas merry for thousands of children has become a Christmas tradition.
“As soon as we get into November, I know Toy Mountain is around the corner,” he says. “It’s the highlight of my Christmas season.”
A father of two, Tom recalls his own Christmases as a child—running down the stairs and seeing brightly wrapped presents under a sparkling tree.
“I want to give every child that moment every year. Let’s put a smile on their face and let them know that they’re loved.”
Christmas can be a stressful time of year for those who do not have the means to provide presents for their children. The Salvation Army works with parents to offer solutions, with humility and respect. By registering with community and family services representatives on designated days, parents can return to select toys for their children.
“They do the shopping themselves,” says Neil. “The Army doesn’t just hand out a bag of toys. The donations collected at Toy Mountain are divided by age, so parents can choose appropriately. It gives dignity to parents when they’re able to select what their child wants.”
Giving Hope 365 Days a Year
The miracle of Toy Mountain goes beyond Christmas.
“We cater to the flood of individuals coming for assistance at Christmastime,” explains Neil. “But that relationship building enables us to help a family throughout the year by connecting them to The Salvation Army’s other ministries, such as food-bank assistance, summer camp or after-school programs.”
Neil recalls a distraught single mom who was facing a hard decision between putting food on the table and giving her children Christmas gifts. A friend told her about The Salvation Army and Toy Mountain.
Hesitantly, she reached out to these strangers, who greeted her with open arms. The Salvation Army was able to assist her, but her story did not end at Christmas. By making that connection, she’d encountered a new community of support.
Through the Army, she learned how to budget, cook nutritious and economical meals, improve her skill set and prepare a resumé to find a better-paying job.
When Neil encountered her last year, she was grinning from ear to ear, and grateful for all the help she had received.
“Toy Mountain gave her hope at Christmas,” says Neil, “and hope for the future.”