'A better Christmas': Toybox program delivers holiday cheer to 1,300 Cape children

Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Gwen Johnson watches as Santa Claus delivers a doll to her 9-year-old daughter Camry Brinson Tuesday night, Dec. 20, 2011 during a Toybox delivery in Cape Girardeau. Brinson also received a soccer ball, bottle of perfume and a bicycle helmet. Toybox, co-sponsored by the Jaycee's and the Southeast Missourian, delivered toys to 418 families Tuesday night. Around 1300 children each received between 3-4 toys during the Cape Girardeau city deliveries. (Laura Simon)

A baby doll. Perfume. A watch. With every gift Santa handed over Tuesday night, Camry Brinson's smile grew wider. Even when the 9-year-old girl was handed toenail clippers, she couldn't help but grin.

But it wasn't until St. Nick pulled a colorful box from his bag that she absolutely erupted.

"Friendship bracelets!" she said. "And I have a friend!"

As Santa and his helper chuckled at Camry's comment, her mother wiped a hand across eyes that had grown moist.

"It means a lot," Gwen Johnson said. "Without this program, she wouldn't have gotten anything. So I'm very grateful."

Ryan Beltz helps Santa check his list during their Tuesday night Toybox deliveries in Cape Girardeau.
lsimon@ semissourian.com

Stories like this one were taking place all over Cape Girardeau on Tuesday night, as more than 100 volunteers of the Toybox program, 23 of them dressed as Santa, delivered presents to 418 households and more than 1,300 children.

That number of overall children is up by more than 100 over last year, said organizer Tracy Haggerty. The event, sponsored by the Jaycees and the Southeast Missourian, drew more applications for help because of the rough economy, she said.

Several first-time applicants reported that they had been laid off in the last year and had been unable to find work, Haggerty said.

"That was a big factor in our numbers increasing this year," she said.

The need had grown so much, in fact, that Haggerty was worried when initial toy donations trickled in at first.

"We were kind of in a panic as to whether we were going to make this work," she said.

Then, within the last week, donations multiplied. That's happened in the past too and Haggerty isn't sure why. She's just grateful that it does.

While adults understand, or should, that the holidays aren't about receiving, children don't know that yet, she said. As a teacher in the Cape Girardeau School District, she said it's heartbreaking to learn that some children get nothing -- especially the younger ones.

Not receiving presents at Christmas can affect a child's sense of worth, she said. Some children mistakenly think they aren't deserving.

"All along, they're taught that Santa has a nice list and a naughty list," she said. "So these kids who still have that belief in Santa and don't get anything, they think, ‘I must have been on the naughty list.'"

Still, she said, with demand up and monetary donations down to $14,000 -- about $6,000 less than last year -- adjustments had to be made. Last year, she said, children received four or five toys. This year, they got three or four.

"We do have to adjust our program with the economy, too," she said.

The children never noticed. On Tuesday afternoon, the 100 or so volunteers gathered at a local warehouse, divided into 23 teams and hit about 15 to 20 stops apiece.

Some of the volunteers donate time every year, and for others this was their first time participating.

Roger Skinner of Cape Girardeau, for example, has been involved with the Toybox program for the last several years as a member of the Cape Girardeau Noon Optimist Club.

"It's an eye-opener to see how some people live," he said as he pulled on the red Santa suit. "They're very poor. They don't have a lot of stuff. A lot of them are very grateful. It's just something I like doing. It makes me feel good about Christmas."

Jeff Michel was volunteering for Toybox for the first time Tuesday, though he said he's portrayed Santa for more than a decade.

"It's for the children," he said. "I love to see a child smile. I'm an emotional Santa, so it might get emotional."

After Michel and his three teammates -- Michael Van Zant, Mario Mendoza and Ryan Beltz -- crawled into a white van, they headed to one of the city's poorer apartment complexes.

Michel belted out hearty ho-ho-hos as he knocked on door after door. Some of the children are shy. One screamed and scurried for her mother's arms.

Paige Massey wept openly as her children, Kenion and Kaniylah, squealed on the floor with their new gifts.

"A better Christmas," she said through her tears. "A better Christmas."



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