For Betty Hernandez and her mother, Mary Bolton, a visit to Toys for Tots and Toy Town on Wednesday offered a joyous moment to cap off a reunion 43 years in the making.
Hernandez and her 10-year-old daughter, June, left Texas recently to escape domestic violence and rekindle family ties with Bolton through communication on Facebook. Hernandez said she headed the Toys for Tots program in her former job with the Houston Chronicle. Now her family is experiencing what a difference a helping hand can make.
"You don’t have any idea how grateful I am," Hernandez said tearfully. "This is pretty much the only way my daughter would get anything besides a couple sweaters."
Christmas joy shone in the smiles and bright eyes of dozens of volunteers and families visiting Toys for Tots and Toy Town, as thousands of gifts filled carts destined for children in the area. Mary Lynne Richards, Marketing Director and Recreation Supervisor with Hannibal Parks & Recreation, said the event will reach 1,100 children in 2016, in communities throughout Marion, Ralls, Monroe, Pike, Shelby and Lewis counties. She said the distribution event of toys and food reflected the combined impact from Douglass Community Services, the Hannibal Salvation Army and Parks & Recreation along with dozens of volunteers.
"We’re working together to make Christmas brighter," Richards said.
Toys for Tots Coordinator Stacey Nicholas said that donors throughout the community made an impact with each toy purchase or handful of change they dropped into a coin bucket.
"The donors make this work for us," Nicholas said.
Volunteer Connie Roberts echoed the sentiment of steadfast community support.
"It’s overwhelming because the community comes together so greatly to give," Roberts said.
As each family arrived, they received a Toys for Tots box with three gifts for each child. Volunteers peered into the box, checking if any toys needed batteries and other details. Next, the family received food boxes from Salvation Army members, led by Major Andy Miller. He had a hearty welcome and wish for each person who came by with a red ticket for a food box.
"Congratulations. It’s a winning number," Miller said with a smile. "God bless you and merry Christmas."
Miller said he thanked the Lord for all of the volunteers helping today, along with the countless volunteers and officers who helped in the past. This year marks the Salvation Army’s 126th Christmas in Hannibal, and Miller said the Toy Town and Toys for Tots program would touch between 600 and 800 families this year.
After they received food boxes, each family went down the aisles of Toy Town to pick out two more toys for each child.
Volunteer Sue Sharp said that she enjoyed her second year volunteering at the event with fellow Altorfer employee Pam Jones. She said she loved seeing the expressions on visitors’ faces when they received gifts and other necessary items in time for the holidays.
Stacey and Steven Stuenkel walked with volunteer Miriam Yochum to pick up gifts for their granddaughter and two grandsons. The opportunity came at just the right time.
"I think it’s wonderful," Stacey Stuenkel said. "My daughter really needed the help this year."
Her husband said the chance to pick out fun toys for each grandchild would also create new memories as he played along with them.
"Sometimes a little help goes a long way," he said.
For Yochum, volunteering gave her a chance to pay joy forward.
"God’s blessed me with a lot, so I want to share with others," she said.
Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at email@example.com