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Collecting toys for the region's tots and teens: New London man expands his territory as Toys for Tots coordinator

Erica Dischino / Tribune New London Princesses Suzanne Schneider, from left, Amanda Rupp and Georgia Wachtler hold boxes to collect donations for Toys for Tots during the Holidaze Parade Nov. 18 in downtown Willmar. Chaperone Stephanie Bents is partially hidden at left.1 / 4
Erica Dischino / Tribune A jar for donations for Toys for Tots during the annual Holidaze Parade events Nov. 18 in downtown Willmar. 2 / 4
Erica Dischino / Tribune New London Princess Amanda Rupp, from left, chaperone Stephanie Bents and fellow New London Princesses Suzanne Schneider and Georgia Wachtler hold Toys for Tots boxes during the Holidaze Parade this Saturday in downtown Willmar. 3 / 4
Erica Dischino / Tribune Michelle Gralish, from left, and her husband Steve Gralish collect donations Nov. 18 at the Toys for Tots table inside the Barn Theatre during the annual Holidaze Parade in downtown Willmar. Steve Gralish is in his fifth year as the coordinator for this region’s Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots campaign. 4 / 4

NEW LONDON — Steve Gralish sometimes feels a little bit like Santa Claus, working diligently behind the scenes throughout the year to make sure deserving children have gifts under the tree come Christmas morning. The only downside is neither Gralish, nor Santa for that matter, ever really gets to see the payoff for his hard work.

"Unfortunately, I never see the kids," Gralish said, as he gears up for his fifth year as the coordinator for this region's Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots campaign.

That doesn't stop Gralish from collecting and distributing toys, and this year he has expanded his reach. In addition to providing Toys for Tots coverage in Kandiyohi and western Stearns counties, Gralish is now coordinating toy collection in Douglas and McLeod counties.

"This is the most rewarding thing I have ever done," Gralish said.

The Marine Toys for Tots Foundation has supported Toys for Tots since 1991. The mission of the program is to collect new, unwrapped toys during October, November, and December each year, and distribute those toys as Christmas gifts to needy children in the community.

Gralish's involvement with Toys for Tots began with his Christmas lights.

"I have a big Christmas display in my yard," said Gralish, who lives in New London.

He became inspired by the huge display at the rural Willmar home of Chad and Angie Koosman, who raise money for the Salvation Army, and Gralish wanted to do something to give back as well. Gralish decided to put a box out to collect toys, which he then donated to the Salvation Army.

"The first year we collected 400 toys," Gralish said.

The next year he became the coordinator for Toys for Tots in Kandiyohi and western Stearns counties. That year, Gralish was able to collect 2,000 toys, all of which stayed in the local program area.

He wanted to expand his reach, and this year a couple of businesses in McLeod and Douglas counties contacted Gralish about setting up a collection spot. Before he could agree, Gralish had to find a partner organization who would distribute the toys.

In Kandiyohi County, Gralish has been working with the Salvation Army from the start. This year, Gralish will work with Common Cup Ministries in McLeod County and the United Way in Douglas County, who will be accepting and distributing the toys collected in those counties.

"Toys have to stay in the area they are collected," Gralish said, meaning if a toy is dropped off in Spicer, it will remain in Kandiyohi County.

Drop-off locations for toy and cash donations are located in dozens of businesses across the four-county coverage area he manages. A full list can be found at https://new-london-mn.toysfortots.org.

Gralish also encourages local businesses to conduct their own Toys for Tots collection drives. One of the largest annual drives is from Jennie-O Turkey Store, Gralish said.

Toys for Tots also accepts monetary donations, which Gralish then uses to purchase gifts. Funds come from donations at drop-off sites or from the annual Toys for Tots disc golf tournament organized by Gralish.

"My year revolves around disc golf and Toys for Tots," Gralish said. He said about $3,500 has been raised for Toys for Tots through the tournament in four years.

Every year he also receives grants from area businesses that allow Gralish to buy more toys and gifts.

"Shopping is a blast," Gralish said "We encourage cash donations, that sends us to shop."

Toys for Tots provides gifts for children from infant to 17 years old. When Gralish shops, he is usually finding gifts for the teenagers. Presents like purses, wallets and jewelry are good options.

"The only thing the foundation discourages is food and clothes," Gralish said. Also electronics that require contracts, like phones, or additional purchases should be avoided as well.

In addition to toys and money, it also takes volunteers to make the annual drive successful.

"It takes volunteers. I'm always up, any time of the year, for people calling up and wanting to help," Gralish said.

Gralish says on average he collects or purchases about 2,200 toys a year. He hopes to grow those numbers.

"This year we're pushing to increase, get those numbers up there. We want to make sure every child, minimum, gets three toys each," Gralish said.

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