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With deadlines near, SOS from Toys for Tots

With only two weeks to go before the Big Day and the deadlines for the prodigious wrapping projects closing in rapidly, some of the people running the annual Toys for Tots drives might be wondering if the Christmas spirit has been on holiday break.

With only two weeks to go before the Big Day and the deadlines for the prodigious wrapping projects closing in rapidly, some of the people running the annual Toys for Tots drives might be wondering if the Christmas spirit has been on holiday break.

At the Horsham Township warehouse for the drive's Glenside chapter in Montgomery County - the venue for four of the region's 14 campaign sites on both sides of the river - the shelves reserved for girls 11 and up were virtually empty last week, save a puzzle here, a video game there.

Donations of all stripes have been arriving at a relative trickle, even as requests from the potential beneficiaries - nonprofits and families in need - are on the rise, said Guy Vogel, the chapter's assistant coordinator. Bins at collection points that would otherwise be brimming by now are noticeably lighter in Horsham and elsewhere in the region, volunteers say.

"The bins aren't full like they have been in the past," Vogel said last week. "Donations are down; requests are up. It's tough, but we do what we can to help."

"The numbers are down across the board," said Kevin Miller, who has been running the drives for the Upper, Central, and Lower Bucks County chapters for 25 years.

Toys For Tots, founded in 1947 by the U.S. Marine Corps, is a nationwide charity with nearly 800 chapters, and no hard data were available on how the drive is faring across the country. Officials in Burlington and Gloucester Counties say their donations have fared decently, but other chapters, including Camden County's, have been struggling.

At the Red Hill chapter in northern Montgomery County, about 2,000 toys had been collected as of last week, compared with 3,000 at the same point last year, said Howard Quinn, the chapter's coordinator.

Why the drop-off in collections? "I don't have an explanation for it," said Miller.

Over the years, said Vogel and Dan Geiser, the Glenside chapter coordinator, they have seen at least a loose correlation between the vitality of the local economy and how many toys land in their bins.

In Camden, one factor has been a drop-off in the numbers of volunteers, said drive organizer Mary Newbill. In Horsham, the struggle also has been exacerbated by fewer boots on the ground. "We haven't had many volunteers come in this year and it's been pretty tough," Vogel said.

Whatever the reasons, Miller said, the gifts are needed "like yesterday." Among other things, drive organizers need time to wrap the gifts that can number in the tens of thousands. Last year, for example, 30,000 gifts were distributed to over 12,000 recipients. Miller said that any gifts that show up after the next few days might not make it to a recipient until Christmas 2017.

Newbill said the deadline for the Camden drive, the end of this week, is "pushed to the limit."

Glenside's Vogel said that even if the gift shortage persists until the chapter's tentative send-out date of Dec. 20, it will find a way to get toys to all the families.

Fortunately, enough cash is on hand, thanks to fund-raisers and cash donations, to compensate for shortages should worse come to worse, said Geiser.

One volunteer, a Horsham mother of three, says this year will be her first as both a volunteer for, and a beneficiary of, Toys For Tots. The mother, who asked that her name not be used, has spent her Fridays, which she has off from work, filling orders at the Horsham warehouse according to the listed age and gender, and boxing them up.

"Everybody that walks in is like, 'This is amazing,' 'this is great, what you guys are doing,' and we're really just fulfilling [requests], but it's the community," she said. "All of these donations are from the community."

Those donations flow in to the seven-year-old chapter's drop-off points from Horsham to Norristown, with well over 500 churches, stores, schools, fire stations, and more hosting the cardboard bins.

The charity collects toys, board games, books, and stocking stuffers for kids up to 13, but has no control over the types of items donated and in what volume. Thus far, it has had a surplus of gifts for ages 2 to 5 but is clamoring for things appropriate for ages 6 and up.

"I think maybe it's the price point and people aren't willing to spend for a donation on a toy," said Geiser. The toys for infants to 2-year-olds and for kids 6 and up tend to be pricier, he said.

At the Horsham warehouse, Vogel noted the the few items for girls 11 and older. They'll be gone in no time, he said.

"So what we do is put the older kids off to the side until more come in," Vogel said.

This year 710 families and 34 nonprofits have called on the Glenside chapter for assistance. They include 40 families in Hatboro, 43 in Horsham, and 300 in Norristown. "We had to stop," Vogel said. "Shelves are empty right now."

Among the Horsham families is the volunteering mother. On Christmas morning she'll be on the other side of the process. Her 10-year old son, 3-year-old daughter, and 1-year-old son will unwrap gifts from both their mother and from Santa, with the help of Toys For Tots.

When asked what she hopes to see on Christmas morning, she replied, simply: "Joy."