It’s probably escaped your notice, the building near 16th Street and 5th Avenue N, with the Christmas Toy Shop sign.
Inside, a small army of volunteer elves – all retirees – work year-round to provide holiday toys, books and bikes for children from poor families, many of whom live in St. Petersburg’s southern neighborhoods. The program is open to children throughout Pinellas County.
I visited the Christmas Toy Shop this week to learn about their unusual problem. Last December, the nonprofit found itself with a sleighful of toys and not enough children to deliver them to.
The trouble was, after being closed for two years because of the pandemic, news of its reopening didn’t reach many families who would have benefited from the Christmas Toy Shop’s giveaway. Last Christmas, it presented gifts to just 359 children, a huge drop after serving 1,575 children in 2019 – before the pandemic hit.
It was a disappointment for the all-volunteer organization that had been carrying out its mission to leave no child “without a Christmas” since 1921.
“We rested on our laurels,” said Lynda Owen, president of the Christmas Toy Shop’s board of directors and office manager. “We thought they would always just find us. We were sadly surprised that didn’t happen.”
So, this year, the organization is starting early to get word to families that they are back in operation. They are spreading the news at parks, churches, libraries, schools, anywhere that children and their families go.
“We’re doing posters. We’re contacting everybody we can,” Owen said. “We are ready. This is the first year we’ve been ready this early.”
The hope is to give toys to about 1,800 children this Christmas.
I was curious to see how a group of volunteers working two days a week, some for a few hours and others longer, planned to pull off this feat.
It was like walking into Santa’s fabled workshop. Christmas decorations, including a snow village display, giant Santa and shelves of collectibles provide the requisite atmosphere for the work that’s done. It is here that volunteers sort and assemble age-appropriate gift packages of new and gently used toys, sew dainty dolly dresses, decorate doll houses, refurbish donated bikes, check electronic toys to make sure they work and even assemble puzzles to ensure all pieces are there.
It appears few things go to waste. Jars and other containers contain vital bits and pieces from used toys that can help to make some almost new again.
Ann Ruppert, who travels from Clearwater to volunteer, gave me a tour of the North Pole outpost. She showed me handmade wooden cribs crafted onsite and spoke of the three artists who decorate them with whimsical paintings. “They each have a theme,” she said of the cribs.
Indeed, that day I saw a crib with a Winnie the Pooh painting that was outfitted in a Winnie the Pooh theme. Nearby, a volunteer was sanding a tiny bench, which would be repainted and, Ruppert said, likely have dolls added to make a complete gift.
It’s a rule that each child gets a book.
A volunteer sells the more expensive donated toys on eBay and the money raised is used to buy more toys for more children, Ruppert said.
To qualify for the program, families must receive some type of government assistance. Registration for the gift giveaway will take place in early November. Toys are packaged, shelved by age groups in the warehouse at the back of the building and covered with protective sheets until parents and guardians arrive to pick them up for Christmas.
“Everybody gets a bag of new and used toys. They get the new bag and then we select the used bag for them. They can look in the new toy section and see if there’s something special, but we really can’t cater to individual needs,” Ruppert said.
Each family also gets a bonus gift that they select, along with a bike and helmet.
The warehouse is also where colorful barrels used by businesses for their Christmas toy drives for the nonprofit are stored.
“There have been people who have been taking these barrels to their workplace year after year. Most of the things that we get in the barrels are used for the following year,” explained Ruppert, who has been a volunteer for about six years.
Volunteers at the Christmas Toy Shop range in age from 55 to 95. Some are snowbirds. Owen says the organization is looking for new volunteers to ensure the continuation of its work.
Jean Hammond, former longtime president of the Wildwood Heights Neighborhood Association, has been a Christmas Toy Shop volunteer for about seven or eight years.
“When I got there, everybody was so happy to see me,” the retired supervisor for the Department of Corrections said. She was paired with another volunteer to work with Barbie dolls.
“I have a love-hate relationship with them,” Hammond joked. “People donate Barbie dolls and they don’t always donate clothes or shoes or other accessories.” Nevertheless, the dolls are coiffed and dressed for gift giving. “Then we put one Barbie doll in a bag and we give her a change of clothes and we put a toy in. So that’s what goes in a Barbie doll package.”
Owen, a retired teacher from Virginia, has volunteered for 15 years. Her late husband, David, who volunteered in the bike shop, encouraged her to join the effort.
The nonprofit was started in 1921 by two women who wanted disadvantaged children to have gifts for the holidays. They collected used toys, which they refurbished, and got donations from businesses to buy new ones.
For many years, the organization has benefited from the generosity of the Christmas Belles, a group that holds an annual coffee to raise funds and collect new toys for the Christmas Toy Shop. “I had to take a van last year to pick them up,” Owens said of the abundance of toys that were donated. “They do a lot for us.”
The nonprofit also received about $35,000 from the coffee fundraiser. Money from the Christmas Belles is only used for toys, Owen said, adding that other financial donations help to maintain the Christmas Toy Shop building that once was a grocery store. Recently, she said, “We had to purchase two new air conditioners and we had a leak in our roof and we put in new LED lighting.”
The focus now is to remind needy families about the help the Christmas Toy Shop can provide.
“We’re hoping they know we’re open. We know they can’t afford to buy toys, because it is hard to buy food for some of them,” Owen said.
“So please come. We’ve got all these free toys. And every family gets one bike. We are here. We’re waiting.”
For more information about volunteering and Christmas gifts, contact the Christmas Toy Shop, 550 16th St. N, St. Petersburg; 727-898-3962; xmastoyshop.org