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Toys for Tots program celebrates 10th year in Kandiyohi, McLeod and Stearns counties

The Toys for Tots campaign in Kandiyohi, McLeod and western Stearns counties is marking its 10th anniversary this year, while the national program, run by the Marine Corps Reserve, is marking 75 years of providing holiday cheer for children. In the region, it is shaping up to be a big year with coordinator Steve Gralish hoping to provide four to five toys per child.

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Toys for Tots coordinator Steve Gralish on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, shows a portion of the toys so far for this holiday season.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — In the facility where Steve Gralish stores all the toys that have been donated and purchased for this year's Toys for Tots campaign, it is definitely starting to look a lot like Santa's workshop. There are hundreds of toys and books stacked and ready to be handed over to the distribution charities for the children in need in Kandiyohi, McLeod and parts of Stearns counties.

"This year, with the extra funds we had, we are hoping we can get these kids four to five gifts each," Gralish said.

The 2022 campaign is extra special for both the local program run by Gralish and the national program run by the Marine Corps Reserve, as both are celebrating major anniversaries. The national group is celebrating its 75th birthday, collecting toys since 1947 and providing a happy holiday for millions of children across the country.

Closer to home, Gralish started collecting toys for Toys for Tots in 2012.

"This is our 10th year," Gralish said. "We've grown year after year after year."

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Piles of toys shown Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, at the Toys for Tots headquarters at Uptown Willmar await being given to children this holiday season.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Donating Christmas dreams

In Kandiyohi County, the local Toys for Tots program helps between 800 to 1,100 kids per year. In 2021, across the service region for the group, 1,610 children received 4,864 gifts through Toys for Tots.

Willmar-area sites

New London
Lake Region Bank (cash donations)
Lit Nutrition 
Lucky Duck
Santa's Workshop
Three Sister's Furnishings
United Minnesota Bank 

Spicer
Duinicks
Kandiyohi Power Cooperative

Willmar
Ag Country
Auto Value Auto Parts
Casey's, Highway 12 (cash donations)
Casey's, 19th Ave. (cash donations)
Cashwise Liquor (cash donations)
Coordinated Business Systems (formally Bennett Office Technologies)
Culver's (trains)
Dooley's Petroleum
Haug Implement
Home State Bank
Jennie-O
Kensington Bank
Lake Region Bank (toy and cash donations)
Menards
Northern Radiator
Runnings 
Sally's Tobacco (cash donations)
Walmart
Willmar Community and Activity Center
Youth for Christ

For a full list of dropoff sites, visit new-london-mn.toysfortots.org/local-coordinator-sites/lco-sites/donate-toys.aspx

Toys for Tots is able to provide those gifts thanks to donations from individuals and businesses. The Toys for Tots collection boxes are as synonymous with holiday season giving as red kettles.

In the local Toys for Tots region, boxes can be found in various businesses and locations — including Menards in both Willmar and Hutchinson, Lucky Duck in New London, Jennie-O and the Willmar Community and Activity Center. A complete list can be found on the program's website . Gralish said the boxes have been filling up fast and often.

"They are filling up, but the need is always there," Gralish said.

Monetary gifts can be made on the website and at various businesses.

The toy boxes will be available for donations until Dec. 7 in Kandiyohi County, Dec. 8 in McLeod County and Dec. 9 in western Stearns County. Gralish will then be handing over the toys collected in each county to the local charity running the distribution. That is the Salvation Army in Kandiyohi County, United Community Action Partnership in McLeod County and St. Nick Project in Stearns County.

Toys or monetary donations made in a specific county remain in that county. That means a toy donated in Kandiyohi County will go to a child living in Kandiyohi County. Any money or toys donated after deadline will be used for the 2023 holiday season.

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Grace Hatzinger, 3, tosses toys into a Toys for Tots donation bin at the Barn Theatre during Holidaze in downtown Willmar on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Toys for Tots collects toys for children ranging in age from newborn to 17. While toys for toddlers through younger teenagers are usually plentiful, gifts for newborns or older teenagers can be a challenge to find.

Gralish advises people to think outside the box, and the toy department. For newborns, check out the baby department for age-appropriate toys. And for teenagers, think sports, beauty and recreation.

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"Wallets, purses, backpacks, health and beauty," Gralish said. "Sporting goods, fishing gear."

Local Toys for Tots groups also receive gift donations from national companies. This year, companies have donated various toys and boxes and boxes of Legos to the local group. Scholastic Books also stepped up, giving hundreds of books for all ages.

"We got 1,100 books," Gralish said.

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Toys for Tots coordinator Steve Gralish at Uptown Willmar on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, shows books that will be given to children.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Stepping up for the kids

Gralish, who sets up a large holiday light display each year at his home, said he was inspired by Chad Koosman's annual Salvation Army fundraiser to do a little bit more at the Gralish home. He started collecting toys for Toys for Tots in 2010.

"We collected 400 toys in my yard that first year," and similar numbers the second year, Gralish said.

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The Toys for Tots program in St. Cloud then asked if Gralish would be interested in starting a program for Kandiyohi County. That program soon expanded to include McLeod and parts of Stearns counties.

"If I could, I would do 10 counties," Gralish said.

While most people think of Toys for Tots only during the holiday season, for Gralish it is a year-round project. He does major toy shopping sprees with donated funds in January and July, hitting up the toy clearance sales after the holidays and summer seasons. He also shops during the holiday season to make sure there are enough toys. Recently, Gralish and volunteers went to Walmart and purchased 560 toys using donated funds.

"This is all money that was donated from the community," Gralish said.

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Toys, both sorted and unsorted, sit at the Toys for Tots headquarters on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

When Gralish started the Toys for Tots campaign, he wasn't sure how it would go. At first, businesses were a little slow to be toy donation sites, Gralish said, but within a few years that had all changed. Now the local campaign is provided with enough toys and funds to meet any sudden gift needs in the area as well as the normal distribution.

"What shocks me is how much we have grown and how the community has accepted us and want to help us," Gralish said. "It is exciting to see. It is very gratifying and satisfying. It is wonderful."

The expectation is the need for Toys for Tots will continue to grow, meaning there will always be a need for toys each holiday season. Gralish and his team of volunteers do what they can, but there are always openings for more toy drives in the area. Those interested can rely on Gralish to assist them in getting started.

"If anyone wants to collect toys, call me," Gralish said.

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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