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Santa’s Toy Box co-chairwoman Judy Clarke and co-chairman Gene Swift take a break Friday from stocking gifts. Photo by Kellen Short

Originally published: 2013-12-07 17:08:34
Last modified: 2013-12-07 17:11:12

Santa's Toy Box marks 27th year

A vacant building in Boone transformed this week into a bright, cheery toy store brimming with colorful gifts.

But this is no fly-by-night retailer hoping to make a quick buck before the holidays.

Santa's Toy Box is celebrating its 27th year of operation, offering Christmas gifts for families to choose who might otherwise struggle to provide their children with presents.

"We build a toy store -- we take milk crates and boards and tables and just build a shelf and put the toys out and let the parents come in and pick out things," said co-chairman Gene Swift, who has been involved with the project since 1991.

The result is a project that helped 918 children in 2012 and expects to meet or exceed that total in 2013.

The projected started in 1985 as an effort of the Deerfield United Methodist men, modeled after a similar project in eastern North Carolina, Swift said.

The group originally took used toys and spruced them up, helping 87 children in their first year.
Around 1994 or 1995, the effort switched to providing primarily new toys, and the project continued to grow.

The economic recession has created an even bigger demand, Swift said, causing the number of children assisted to jump from about 700 to about 900 in 2008.

"Last year we helped 918 kids, and we gave four new toys and a new book to each of those," Swift said.

Families are identified by word of mouth, through churches, doctors' offices, Social Services and the health department.

Starting Tuesday, families will go to the short-term toy store at their designated times spread across a week and a half to choose gifts for the children from birth to age 15.

They can wrap the gifts and put them under the tree themselves, so children never know "Santa" had extra help.

This year, like every year, the location was offered for free by a local business, Swift said.

Aside from the "shopping floor," the space includes storage rooms stacked with gifts, ready for restocking.

Community members can continue to drop off gifts at several locations: High Country Host, Boone Police Department, Haircut 101, First Citizens' bank in Boone and Blowing Rock, any Kangaroo location, Ross Chrysler Jeep Dodge, Big Lots, State Employees' Credit Union at New Market, Tar Heel Basement Systems and several locations at ASU.

Swift said the supply is slightly short this year on girl-specific gifts, so those toys are especially appreciated.

Santa's Toy Box also accepts tax-deductible donations, which it will use to purchase toys, at: Santa's Toy Box, c/o Deerfield United Methodist Church, P.O. Box 1337, Boone, NC 28607. Checks should be made out to Santa's Toy Box.

Anyone interested in volunteering also can reach Swift at (828) 264-4801 or (828) 266-3362.

Swift said the project would not be so successful without the generosity of local individuals and businesses.

He said organizers have been lucky to have support from local stores, which routinely offer discounts and deals, waive coupon limits and donate toys to help the cause. Swift is known for leaving local shops with carts upon carts of toys to stuff into his small Subaru.

Co-chairwoman Judy Clarke said the project isn't just on her mind at Christmastime. She and other organizers fill rooms in their houses with gifts picked up at sales throughout the year.

As a result, hundreds of Watauga County children will receive gifts totaling, on average, about $50 to $60 apiece.

"It's one of those things that you feel like you're doing something for the community," Clarke said. "Some of them get really emotional, because they couldn't provide toys otherwise."