After finishing her day-early Thanksgiving dinner, a Chester County woman sprang yet again into action for charity.
Colleen O'Connell's goal: maximizing the $1,529 she had to spend on holiday toys, thanks to the guests at her table.
Immersing herself in Black Friday circulars, the 44-year-old West Caln Township resident selected the store with the best prices, then divided her helpers into four two-person teams, each assigned to cover three aisles.
At the stroke of midnight, the elves were off and running.
The results of their 21/2-hour shopping spree have since contributed to a traffic jam of sorts in the West Caln Township building.
"This is pretty cool," a beaming West Caln Police Chief Curt A. Martinez said this week as he surveyed a giant - and growing - mountain of toys in the lobby.
"I need another box," Township Treasurer Pat Johnson announced as she repositioned hobby horses and puzzles to maintain a pathway to the township offices.
Martinez said his department began Toys for Tots collections when he became chief in 2007. He said O'Connell and her husband, Patrick McGraw, 47, outdid themselves as catalysts for the program.
The success of the West Caln drive is not the norm this year for the national program, which has been run by the Marine Corps Reserve since 1947.
The program aims "to deliver, through a new toy at Christmas, a message of hope to less fortunate youngsters that will assist them in becoming responsible, productive, patriotic citizens," according to its website.
Maj. Brian A. Murray, vice president of operations for the national foundation, said toy donations were down this year.
Charles R. Haig IV, a Marine combat corpsman who coordinates the Toys for Tots drive in parts of Montgomery and Bucks Counties, said that regional contributions were mirroring the national trend and that he would love to be able to clone people like O'Connell and McGraw.
Haig said each of the six coordinators in the Philadelphia suburbs and the two in nearby areas of New Jersey experience heartwarming examples of kindness and sacrifice.
Last weekend, Haig said, he traveled to the Toys R Us store in Langhorne, where a 6-year-old girl donated 24 toys she solicited in lieu of birthday presents for herself.
"I know the economy is bad, but we've had even more requests for toys this year," Haig said. "We're going gangbusters to make sure every needy child gets a toy."
Martinez said he believes the plethora of playthings that O'Connell and McGraw produced stems in part from their unusual format: a dinner party.
O'Connell said she and her husband got the idea five years ago as an alternative to exchanging presents with each other. They invited family and friends to a catered meal at their home the day before Thanksgiving, collected $20 per person, and used the profits to finance purchases for Toys for Tots.
"The first year, we raised $250," she said.
Black Friday offers the "most bang for the buck," but good organization is critical.
She said the poor economy heightened people's awareness of needy children this year, causing some guests to pay more than $20.
"Since these are people we know, we're aware of their own financial struggles," O'Connell said. "I spent the whole night crying. It really touches you."
She said she and her husband were delighted when Martinez set up a toy drive in their township three years ago.
"We used to have to take stuff to Downingtown," she said.
Another plus: Martinez identifies needy children in the township through the school district so that the Toys for Tots program will receive most, but not all, of the township's bounty.
Martinez said members of his department would select and wrap gifts for the township children, and that they would be delivered by Santa in a truck from the Wagontown Fire Company.
He said the couple's two vanloads of toys provided the inspiration for many subsequent deliveries, even one from outside the township.
"A woman from Pottstown dropped off a van full of toys because her son once lived here," he said. "It becomes contagious."
Even O'Connell and McGraw were shocked when they stopped by the township building on Tuesday and saw a lobby dwarfed by erupting volcanoes, Candy Land games, police cruisers, and baby dolls.
"This is more than twice what we had last year - a lot more," said McGraw.
O'Connell said the couple would be thrilled to continue that growth, but this year's 70 dinner guests stretched the limits of their home.
"That's our capacity," she said. "I would love it if someone wanted to donate a location."
How to Donate
For more information on "Toys for Tots," visit www.toysfortots.orgEndText