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Toys bringing joys: Community gift effort helps needy families

Marine Cpl. James McMillen and Cheryl Wuensch, pastor at First United Methodist Church, pull toys destined for needy children out of a bin during the Toys for Tots distribution Tuesday at the church.  - Robert Whale/Auburn Reporter
Marine Cpl. James McMillen and Cheryl Wuensch, pastor at First United Methodist Church, pull toys destined for needy children out of a bin during the Toys for Tots distribution Tuesday at the church.
— image credit: Robert Whale/Auburn Reporter

Two years ago 300 people waited in line during the Toys for Tots distribution at First United Methodist Church in Auburn.

By 2011, the number had doubled.

On Tuesday nearly 900 people waited patiently throughout a wind-whipped morning and afternoon, subjecting themselves to popsiclification so the little ones in their lives could have a doll, a game, a toy truck, something under the tree this Christmas to call their own.

"The need in our community is really high," said Crystal Goetz, Christian education and family life ministries director at the church. "We never expected to have crowds of people lining up at 5 o'clock in the morning."

Indeed, some of the most determined began their vigil at 11 p.m. Monday. The church was ready for them, handing out numbered bracelets, telling them to go on home, to sleep in their warm beds and to come back in the morning.

Between 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., volunteers inside the church wore themselves out drawing from boxes of toys destined to find honored places under hundreds of trees in homes throughout the area.

The church provided a warming tent in the parking lot and plenty of cookies and hot drinks. Russian, Spanish and Somali interpreters were in the parking lot to translate wishes.

The Marine Corps runs Toys for Tots, collecting the toys and bringing them to distribution centers like the Auburn church and DSHS (Department of Social and Health Services) offices, where they are given as holiday gifts to needy children in the community. This Toys for Tots effort partnered with DSHS community service offices in King County to distribute toys for children, birth through 14. The DSHS made a list of clients on public assistance who are active, pending or recently closed and provided that list to Toys for Tots.

For two weeks, Toys for Tots gave away toys throughout King County. As of late Tuesday, more than 15,000 gifts had been distributed for kids throughout the South king County area.

The Auburn church got involved two years ago after DSHS asked if it would be willing to host a distribution.

The unexpectedly high turnout last year caused, Goetz admitted, "a bit of a disaster" — the church didn't participate as a church, it only rented out the space. Church officials decided that this time around would be different, that they would really seize a good opportunity to connect with the community and provide what help they could.

"We decided to really make it an event," Goetz said.

Church officials spent four months planning the distribution, working side-by-side with nearby New Day Christian Fellowship. The idea, Goetz said, was to use the opportunity to spread some love in the community, and to use the bracelets to keep folks warm who would have otherwise have waited outside all night.

"We're seeing what the happiness factor is," Goetz said as she eyed the line. "Are people coming in happy? Are they cared for, are they feeling good? What we're hearing is that it's great, they love it. The bracelet idea has been really effective. It has sort of allowed us to meter how many people we are serving, how many we have served."

By 1 p.m. the church had distributed gifts for 1,500 needy children,

Auburn veterinarian and volunteer Dr. Don Edwards began handing out bracelets at midnight. He was in the parking lot again at 4:30 a.m. and stayed there until the distribution was done.

"I've been handing out tags with numbers so people don't have to wait in line. Everybody seems to be happy, " Edwards said.

Edwards asked, "Is everybody happy?"

"Yes," came the crowd's response.

"When somebody with a number comes back and heads straight to the front of the line, nobody says a thing. They all feel that it's an equitable system," said Cheryl Wuench, pastor at First United Methodist Church.

Marine Sgt. Mark Twarog said he and 15 other Marines were at the Seahawks game on Dec. 9 where the Corps collected "a whole U-Haul truck" worth of toys.

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