This story appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on December 16, 2017
When Christmas arrives shortly more than a thousand families will experience unexpected joy in Anoka County, Minnesota, thanks to a large contingent of community partners.
From fundraising to fulfillment, volunteers are contributing time and money to bring a smile to children’s faces and a warm meal to their family’s tables.
When Mike Hunstad first volunteered at Toys for Joy 17 years ago he never imagined he’d become a Santa of sorts. But, when a recently widowed man shared that without Toys for Joy his family would have had no Christmas, Hunstad was hooked.
He asked the organization’s leadership how he could get involved. For nearly 10 years now the Counselor Realty broker has served as its president.
Toys for Joy was launched in 1986 to ensure every child in Anoka County had a Christmas present under the tree. Three decades and thousands of gifts later it is a volunteer-run, overhead-free program operated by the St. Paul Area Association of Realtors (SPAAR) in conjunction with the Christmas Committee, an Anoka nonprofit with stakeholders in education, police, fire, community clubs, and more.
Working together, SPAAR’s staff, real-estate agents and affiliates (title companies, inspectors, lenders, etc), the Christmas Committee and community partners assure Anoka County residents have a table-to-tree holiday experience (toysforjoymn.com).
The Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce has participated with Toys for Joy since its inception. Chamber President Pete Turok says, “You can see how grateful the adults are, not just for themselves, but for their kids. That’s worth a million bucks.”
The chamber works with dozens of businesses to serve as collection sites for Toys for Joy and to raise awareness about both the need and the opportunity to meet it.
Schools, hospitals, churches, food shelves, medical providers, and social services agencies let needy families know how to apply.
Though recipients have different stories, they are all Anoka County residents with children up to 18 years old. Families served average five to six, though one had 16 members.
Hunstad says many are among the working poor or unemployed. Some are adult students. They may have lost a job, a spouse, or a child or be homebound due to illness or disability. A military parent may be deployed.
While some families return year after year, others become volunteers when their circumstances improve. This year, four recipients will have the opportunity to give back.
The breadth and depth of the initiative inspires creative fundraising.
The Christmas Crawl in downtown Anoka draws thousands of participants sporting Santa suits and ugly sweaters who pay to visit area pubs.
A Christmas tree lighting event at the county fairgrounds raises awareness and yields donations of toys and cash to buy more.
Realtors, golfers, musicians, comedians, and restaurateurs offer time and talents to raise funds.
Supporters spend the year raising tens of thousands of dollars that they spend in one shopping trip at local Target and Wal-Mart stores.
Shopping for the little guys is fun. Shopping for 12-to-18-year olds can be stressful. Because Toys for Joy provides gifts – not gift cards – and has a budget of $25 per recipient, it’s challenging to shop for older kids who prefer electronic items or whose tastes change with the wind. So volunteers survey local students to figure out what gifts will garner a smile.
While it’s all rewarding, the joy came this week when volunteer elves shepherded families through tables of items displayed at the distribution center.
But first came the preparation. Hunstad estimates 3,000 volunteer hours go into the week before elves deliver the goods.
Preparing for distribution is a big job. It comes together through the efforts of the committee and the community and it’s amazing to be a part of it, Hunstad says.
Coborns Delivers provides a fresh turkey for each family. Other businesses donate bread, produce, nonperishables, stocking stuffers, stuffed animals, books, puzzles, games, wreaths, and garland.
Free Bikes 4 Kidz donates refurbished bicycles and helmets. A bicycle may be a treat for a youngster or the means for a teen to get to work.
If donations exceed the need, Toys for Joy will find another home for them, often at the pediatric wards at Unity or Mercy hospitals or at local shelters or churches.
Area high school students are among the volunteers to help with unloading trucks and setting up.
Hunstad pits varsity athletes against their junior counterparts in a game he dubbed “Hunstad in the middle.” He motivates athletes to quickly – and carefully – unload a semi full of food by calling a fumble and making them run laps if they drop the goods.
The yearlong effort will touch more than the recipient families. Volunteers experience the satisfaction of bringing strangers even a small measure of holiday joy.
“There are so many pieces to this puzzle. It’s incredible. It started out as a 25-piece puzzle and now we’re at 500,” Turok says. “People want to get on board with something positive and that’s what this is. It’s a complete package and it’s local.”
That Realtors are so involved is not surprising to Hunstad. “Being an agent in the community, this is where you live, work, and play. Why wouldn’t you want to be part of making it better? Putting a smile on people’s faces is what it’s all about.”