Toybox presents arrive with community help

Friday, December 19, 2003

When Santa Claus showed up at Jebraya Harris' door Thursday night, the eyes of the 6-year-old became nearly as wide as her smile.

"Yay, it's Santa!" she said, hopping up and down, barely able to restrain herself from rushing the jolly old elf. "Toys, toys!"

But Santa, or Tony Koeller as he's called in everyday life working for Ahrens Appraisal Service, encouraged her to come right over.

"How about a big hug?" he said to Jebraya and her siblings, Aniya Harris, 4, and Damarius Hudson, 3. "Will you hug Santa?"

Koeller handed each child two toys and left a bag with more gifts inside to place under their Christmas tree. After he was gone, Jebraya admired her new doll and board game.

"This is pretty nice," she said. "We can play this game in the morning, and this doll is very pretty."

Toybox, a joint program of the Cape Girardeau Jaycees and Southeast Missourian, has been providing needy children with gifts for nearly 30 years.

This was Koeller's first year of volunteering, but after visiting just a few homes he was already hooked. He also has been on the other end of the process.

"I grew up the eldest of 10 kids," Koeller said. "So, I know what it feels like to be poor. When I was 14, a group of people like this came around and gave us a bunch of presents and it was great."

This year, Koeller and 23 other Santas of all shapes and sizes -- including two women -- took to the streets of Cape Girardeau in white vans delivering gifts to needy children up to age 12.

The Toybox program raised about $25,000 in cash donations and received between $20,000 to $25,000 worth of toys. Every donation collected was spread around to about 500 families, or nearly 1,200 children, volunteer Mike Seabaugh said. Last year, about 60 additional families had signed up.

Darryl Huggins has volunteered as a Santa for nearly five years and appears in his own handmade suit, complete with brass buttons, real leather boots and a soft, curly wig and beard.

"Every year, I add something new to it to make me look more like a real Santa," he said.

His favorite memory occurred three years ago when he walked into a small apartment where the family had been cooking dinner when he arrived.

"I guarantee you that little girl jumped across the kitchen floor and into my arms," he said. "That's something you'll never forget."

His shared some advice with the other Santas before setting out: "Eat cookies at your own risk."

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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